Students should appreciate beauty of reading and how it invites conscious consumption

Grace Xu

From the elementary school reading challenges to StudyTubers waxing poetic about their reading goals to Bill Gates’s reading lists that make news headlines to those “READ” posters plastered everywhere, I’ve always heard about the importance of reading since just about forever. 

But, I never understood it. (That’s really saying something since I used to literally read a novel a day in middle school.) 

To be honest, even though I used to be an incredibly voracious reader, I’ve always considered reading on par with other forms of media consumption—how is a book necessarily different? Although most people have heard by now that reading fiction can lead to increased empathy, a fiction-based movie has the same effect too. And if you prefer nonfiction books, a podcast or a documentary would likely be just as informational. What sets reading apart?

Well, it took me a while to even realize that was a question I needed to answer, and even longer for me to actually attempt at an answer. It wasn’t until recently, when I’ve all but stopped reading—ironic, I know—that I’ve started to learn how to appreciate the beauty of books.

You see, I’ve never really realized how much thinking is integrated into the core of reading. You literally cannot read without thinking. (The good news is that you’re reading this.) Reading involves processing these squiggly lines on a piece of paper—or a screen—into something you can understand, and you must be constantly focused because the moment you zone out, it’s not possible to read anymore. You can put on some television or music in the background; however, you most certainly cannot read “in the background.”

Moreover, with film or music, you don’t need to learn how to “view” or “listen” to it, you just can. With a movie, in fact, you can even see the full picture, literally—maybe not figuratively, but pretty much literally. Reading, by contrast, requires constant focus even at the most basic levels to imagine what the author means, literally or figuratively or otherwise. You have to fill in the gaps yourself, as a unique individual, and that’s why no two people who read the same book imagine it the exact same way. 

Thus, there is always a filter, that tiny bit of disconnect, between the reader and the reading—even if really immersive books make it feel otherwise. That mandatory disconnect, however unconscious, is in fact likely why so many people adamantly extol the benefits of reading. Reading absolutely requires you to make your own interpretations of every single word, every single moment. There’s no break. 

Perhaps a more scientific way of looking at all this is that reading simply helps you practice using your brain—which is why it can also help prevent Alzheimer’s, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—but of course, you can look at all this whatever way you want, because you’re the one reading.  When you are being exposed to the written ideas of others, whether that be the author’s or the various different characters’ or even the peculiar setting, you have to view it through your own lens. 

You have to view it through your own lens.

And that, I think, is the true charm of reading. It invites self-reflection through exposing you to the ideas of others. Even if you are just reading purely for fun, odds are you will still learn something—even if that something is as surface-level as a new vocabulary word—that you didn’t know before, and you will have to process it through your own perspective. You will constantly expose yourself to new ideas, and you will constantly have to consider how to react to those new ideas.   

Of course, reading isn’t a “superior” form of media consumption by any means. A lot of what I said about self-reflection and empathy and exposure to new ideas and whatnot—you can also experience through a movie or a painting or even a comedy stand-up routine. However, I think it’s important to acknowledge that reading is unique in that it forces you, as the individual, to continually filter what you consume. No two people can ever process a text the exact same way, and therein lies the beauty of reading.

The views in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of the HiLite staff. Reach Grace Xu at [email protected]