Rediscovering why I read books throughout my lifetime

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

Books have always played an important role in my life, influencing, informing, and entertaining. Now I want to pass forward to others the benefits I have received. One of the steps of offering my thoughts to “the world” is to visualize who might be on the receiving end. Communication does, after all, require a speaker and a listener. So who are “those people” out there to whom I am speaking? One approach to understanding how books work for them is to explore how books have worked for me. By picking apart the way books have worked in my life, I hope to learn how other people use books.

When I lay out my recollections on paper, patterns emerge, much simpler and more sensible than expected, letting me identify the way I used books differently in various eras of my life. Perhaps this fact should have been obvious to me from the start, but it wasn’t and now once again, I find myself learning more about the changes across the lifespan by going back and reviewing my own.

Different reasons for reading at different stages in life
In early teen years, I fell into a torrid love affair with science fiction, a genre that let me suspend my own limitations, and join forces with people who adventured through the known and unknown universe. Regular trips to the library and a large paperback collection fed my passion for fantasy. Then in high school, I switched to more serious literature, like Charles Dickens and Alexander Dumas, basking in the hypnotic rhythm of their language and stories. It didn’t bother me that they described a world that took place 100 years earlier. In fact, in one of my favorite books from that period, “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” Mark Twain transported the protagonist back several hundred years, combining literature with science fiction.

When I was twenty, I desperately wanted clever people to tell me what life was going to be like, so I ran towards the darkness of a culture driven mad by World War II. One of the most intellectually demanding books I ever read, “The One Dimensional Man” by Herbert Marcuse left me feeling that all was insanity and all was lost. Mentors like Samuel Beckett and Joseph Heller offered a cynical emptiness, so deep and despairing that by the time I stopped reading I had entered my own hell. Perhaps I was experiencing “Clinical Depression” or perhaps I had simply spent too much time absorbing post-World War II despair. Whatever it was, I had my fill of the dark.

To regain some of the lightness required for survival, I reached towards spirituality, reading books by mystical authors who offered me insights into a reality that made more sense than the one I had constructed so far. One was Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yoga [See my essay on a memoir about Paramahansa Yogananda by clicking here.] There were many others. Rumi, the ancient Persian poet who continues to influence and uplift. Kahlil Gibran. The Book of Mirdad. The Way of the Pilgrim, about a Russian monk who learns the art of constant prayer. Some potent books, like Stewart White’s “Betty Book” were recommended by a friend who had found them on dusty shelves of a used bookstore. (Ah-ha! It’s not just bestselling books that influence a reader.)

I finally got back on my feet, and as a young working man, I returned to mysteries. Their repetitive formula soothed me by unmasking the villain and reducing the chaos of the world.

In my forties I discovered self-help books. During this period, authors taught me psychological skills to help me survive the working life, and improve my chances for aging gracefully. My foray into self-help reached a zenith in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey, whose ideas formed the foundation for going back to school for a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology. I continued my fascination with self-help and psychological literature, to help me continue to grow, as well as to give me insights with which I could help others.

When I approached sixty, I switched again, reading memoir after memoir to learn what sorts of lives people have written.

My changing tastes offer many insights
When I look back over the decades, what looked originally like a thousand disjointed bits of information fall into a nicely organized shape. Of course there were exceptions that don’t precisely fit into this convenient stratification, but those don’t disrupt the basic lesson — That as I grew, I used books in different ways. My insights about books through the years becomes a lens through which I can learn more not only about myself, but about how I interacted with the world around me.

Like almost every task in my memoir project, evaluating my past adds information to my present. I see so much more about my relationship with books, and book authors, a realization that will deepen my understanding of how to reach my readers. In further essays, I will write more about how these changing relationships might affect the way I organize my life story, ideas that I hope will inspire you to understand more about your own relationship with your potential audience.

Writing Prompt: For each period in your life, write about the books you read, and why you read them. List your favorite titles, and describe the impact they had on you. Place this list in order, and see if you can identify any patterns about how they changed over the years.

Note: Memoirs are so varied they provide a variety of the benefits I have looked for in the course of my reading. Memoirs can be exhilarating, provide lots of entertainment, and offer lessons about life. Articles about the spirituality of memoirs can be found here.

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