A Book Is a Decision to Change

Image: Reading by Berthe Morisot/Cleveland Museum of Art

When you choose to read a book, you also choose to change after you’re done. You may think you have an idea of how you’re going to change—“This book tells me I’ll be learning this,” etc.—but really, all bets are off. That’s the reason why books are amazing. And, I like to think, that’s the reason we may feel more disappointed by a bad book than a mediocre film. We hold books as a medium to a higher standard.

In Sherry Turkle’s memoir, The Empathy Diaries, she recalled a conversation with psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, “Once, I was bold or perhaps naive enough to ask him why he didn’t explain things this simply in his writing, and he said that he wanted people to struggle with themselves as they unpacked his work. Reading psychoanalytic texts should be self-analytic. Ecrits should be read in little bits and puzzled over. It’s like reading poetry. You don’t try to speed-read. The idea is to have an experience that changes you.”

For many reasons—whether it’s the culture of speed-reading and transactional reading, or perhaps school stamping the fun out of reading (see Scholastic’s “decline by nine”), as well as the increased competition with other media, and our decreased attention spans—reading a book stopped being fun, and started being a form of unpaid work. In such a mind state, reading Lacan would be torture. This is why books stopped becoming better than TV

But still, books may not be easier, but they have always been better than TV. The best people in the entertainment business allocate billions of dollars to make movies better than the books, but they rarely—arguably never—succeed. 

That’s because books are better than TV because they change us

The TV shows and films that are outstanding also change us, the same way a book would. When you choose a book, you’re also choosing how you’re going to change. Here are three ways a book can change you:

Choose a New Story for Yourself

Choosing and reading a good book usually provides a sense of “dépaysement,” a word I picked up from Turkle’s memoir to mean, “making yourself a stranger in your environment in order to see it more clearly.” 

For example, choosing to read Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat made me mindful of my own adolescence and story; what parts of my identity were shaped by the people and environments I was in, how, and why. What my own perspective omitted, what parts of my heritage I was unaware of (still, too much!), and how little I’d thought of it. When I bought the book, I didn’t actually mean to recognize all of this, of course—I’d bought it for entertainment value.

If you choose to read the same books as everyone else, you’ll think just like everyone else. That’s not such a bad thing, if you really just want to feel connected. But if you want to learn to think independently, and to develop your interests, and to better understand yourself, you’re best served choosing the books that will help you do that. 

I wish it were as simple as providing a set of general questions for you, but it’s not; it’s hard work, and it’ll take time for you to do it. And sometimes, the best books are the ones that you don’t expect to teach; yet you end up learning from it anyway.

Choose to Know What You Don’t Know

One variation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests that “the particular language one speaks influences the way one thinks about reality.” A good book will introduce new material for you to think with.

For example, when Robin Wall Kimmerer uses the words “More-than-human beings” to describe what I used to categorize merely as “trees” or “animals” in Braiding Sweetgrass, it’s a new perspective I hadn’t considered. It doesn’t personify or humanize necessarily, but it gives life and dignity to these entities we share the planet with. And similarly, it makes me reconsider my relationships with other entities (e.g., businesses) and “imagined realities” we construct (material I picked up from a skim of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens).

Choosing a book means choosing to broaden your own perspective—or at least, using another person’s perspective to shape your own. 

There are so many unfamiliar things in this world. Done right, a book is a tangible representation of the most important parts of a topic—usually a narrow slice of it. 

Choose Who Builds Your Worldview

“Everyone’s job is world-building, even if they don’t realize it,” writes Alex Danco. I really appreciate this and his latest series, because it’s completely true. Our world is made up not only of our physical environment, but the one that our mind constructs as well. When we meditate, when we talk, when we create, we are choosing to shape our world in some way.

Our world is framed by our worldview. There are very practical reasons to change our worldviews; for example, if you wanted to get a job at Shopify, you may be well-served understanding the growth mindset. There’s really no substitute, then, for reading Carol S. Dweck’s Mindset. But after you do that, you’ve immersed yourself in it, and you’ll see the world differently. Even if you don’t believe in it, you’ll be compassionate and understand those who do and why. (And hopefully, if you still want to work at Shopify, you’ll get a chance to do that!)

We think in words, mental images, and narratives. That’s exactly what the raw materials of books are made of. Choosing a book means committing the time to change your worldview. It also means choosing how you may change other people’s worldviews in the future as well.

Choose Your Past and Your future

When we read, we choose not only to remember our past and to add new meaning to it. We also choose what our future will be to us—who we want to be, or at least try to be like. And what we choose to read, we choose to preserve as well. Whenever we read, write, or share a book, we choose to give it a new breath of life—the vitality that it needs to sustain it. 

In marketing terms, it works for the author as “word of mouth marketing,” but books are so much more than just vessels for ideas and instructions. They contain stories and experiences that people have lived and died for, either to share or to keep quiet. 

And books are the objects of the adventurers that go and try to tell these stories—these fragile, tragic, beautiful, powerful, joyous, inspiring stories—that show us not only how to survive, but also how to live. 

If you want to learn more from books, and choose the best ones, sign up for the Best of Books reading newsletter, where I send you three great books in your inbox every month. You’ll also instantly receive my most popular articles on creativity (read by 300,000+ other people).

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