I was a voracious reader as a kid. I knew how to read before I ever went to school, thanks to my parents and the first few seasons of Sesame Street, and the habit stuck with me for decades. And then...I stopped. More accurately, I didn't stop reading--I read as much as I ever did--but I stopped reading fiction. I read the odd novel once in a while, or a story in The New Yorker, but most of my reading was "professional" in nature, focused on topics intended to help me be a better coach, a better teacher.
And while I certainly grew in some ways as a result, I stopped growing in other, equally important ways. The relationships I developed with fictional characters (and their authors) as a reader were more meaningful to me than I'd realized, and I came to feel their absence more acutely.
So last year as I prepared to take a leave from my work at Stanford over the summer, I asked my wife if she would provide me with a reading list. If you know Amy, you understand this request--she's the voracious kid reader who never quit. She reads 150 novels a year, every year. Hell, she read dozens of novels a year when she was 5th in her class in law school. So she was pretty excited--and here's what I read in 2015, thanks to her:
A Way of Life, Like Any Other, Darcy O'Brien
Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese
The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton
The Siege of Krishnapur, J.G. Farrell
Troubles, J.G. Farrell
The Singapore Grip, J.G. Farrell
Augustus, John Williams
Stoner, John Williams
The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley
The Balkan Trilogy, Olivia Manning
The Levant Trilogy, Olivia Manning
I, Claudius, Robert Graves
Claudius the God, Robert Graves
A Good Man in Africa, William Boyd
Any Human Heart, William Boyd
An Ice Cream War, William Boyd
So having spent half a year re-immersed in fiction, here are three things I've learned:
Fiction Teaches Empathy
Recent research suggests that empathy can be taught--and this was readily apparent to me after my return to fiction-reading. Perhaps more than any other representation of human experience, fiction puts the reader inside another person's psyche, with uniquely privileged access to their inner thoughts, feelings and perceptions. John Williams allowed me to be Caesar Augustus, looking back with equanimity on a life of triumph and failure. Olivia Manning allowed me to be a wartime English bride trapped in Eastern Europe and a failed marriage as the Nazis advance. J.G. Farrell allowed me to be a man in hand-to-hand combat who survives by the slimmest margin of dumb luck. The act of reading fiction--good fiction, at least--is the definition of empathy: understanding and sharing another person's experience.
Fiction Prompts Reflection
The importance of reflection in the learning process isn't news to me--hey, I teach this stuff. (Stephen Colbert puts it more eloquently than I could at 5:13.) But over this past year I was struck by fiction's power to bring me up short and stop my usual headlong progress toward the next thing. I was reminded that while good books are page-turners, the very best books compel us to put them down every few pages--sometimes to fully digest what we're taking in, at other times because the words on the page take us elsewhere, and we have to follow our own thoughts before we can return to those of the character. But in either case fiction isn't a distraction from deeper thought, but a gateway into it.
Fiction Rewards Persistent Effort
Reading fiction takes work--sometimes a lot of work over many days in a row. Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy was the second book Amy gave me last summer, and when she plopped the 944-page volume in front of me I'm pretty sure I said, "You have got to be kidding me." And the first few days were a bit of a slog, but I trusted Amy's judgment enough to persist, and soon enough I was hooked. Toughing it out through difficult passages in order to enjoy the rewarding experience that can come only after some hardship was a hallmark of the best fiction I read last year. The books that were a breeze to read from start to finish certainly lightened my mood, but they rarely transported me to great heights, and I came to appreciate the payoff that usually followed persistent efforts.
The punchline, of course, is that all of these tasks--cultivating my capacity for empathy, engaging in reflective thought, repeated efforts at focusing my attention--are precisely the practices that allow me to continue to grow and develop as a coach and teacher. I can't say that I'm more effective than I was a year ago--that's for my clients and students to decide. But I feel more effective, more capable, better equipped. And I'm certainly a richer person.
So I'm keeping at it, and I've asked Amy to continue the recommendations into 2016. Currently I'm reading Rose Tremain's Restoration. Next up, Vassily Grossman's Life and Fate--all 896 pages of it.
Photo by David D. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.