As you might imagine, we spend a lot of time at NoveList thinking and talking about books. One of our goals is to help readers understand what the reading experience will be when they pick up a particular book. It’s a hazard of being a librarian, I suppose, but that intense attention to what the reading experience means often trickles over into how I think about my own personal reading life.  

I recently read a novel that I found deeply unsettling, which was surprising to me because I read a wide variety of books and this book had almost universally positive reviews, so I expected to like it, but my encounter with the novel was a distinctly unpleasant one. But you know what? I read that book weeks ago, and I cannot stop thinking about it. Even though I didn’t necessarily enjoy the reading experience, it made a lasting impression on me. 

You have likely read studies that have shown that reading can increase empathy and encourage understanding of others as well as a whole host of other benefits. And when I was questioning my reaction to this book I started thinking about those studies and what it is that makes reading stand out from other kinds of media consumption. 

Part of the reason that reading can impact us so profoundly is that the act of reading may look passive, but, it’s an incredibly dynamic act. The reader is in conversation with the text, interpreting and visualizing what the author has set out before them. 

Whether you’re reading words on a page or listening to an audiobook, you are actively integrating what you’re reading, absorbing those words into your brain, and using your imagination and knowledge to synthesize and understand what is being shared.   

And that’s the power of reading, you become a participant in the story, not simply an observer. And that participation literally changes your brain. 

We’ve had a tough two years. A global pandemic, disturbing world events, and horrifying violence — it can make you feel a bit disheartened about the state of the world. But I choose to be optimistic about the future. I go into my local library and I see little kids carrying out stacks of picture books and I see book discussion groups debating that month’s selection and I see teenagers lounging in the corner with the newest graphic novels and I have faith that the power of books will help people to understand and connect with each other. 

Books give us the opportunity to step into a new world and experience things outside of our own perspective. They allow us to appreciate and empathize with others in ways that we may not be able to in our day-to-day lives. 

Back to that book I was telling you about. In the time since I’ve read it, I have talked to so many different people about it. Both those who have read it and those who haven’t yet. And every conversation helped me to better understand my own reaction to the story and what I brought to the story that made it so uncomfortable for me. And even though it’s not a book that I would ever say I enjoyed, I’m glad I read it and I appreciate why it was a story that needed to be told.  

That, to me, shows the value of reading. It shouldn’t always be comfortable to read a book. It should make us unsettled sometimes. Because that can force us to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and where our faults may lie. To examine our preconceived ideas of others and their situations. To assist us in reflecting on our personal experiences and to grapple with the inequities we see in the world.  

This post has been modified from its original use at the 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Washington, DC.  

Halle Carlson is a Content Development Manager at NoveList. She is currently reading The Summer Job by Lizzy Dent and listening to Counterfeit by Kirstin Chen.