Updated: May 31
Better relationships, more empathy, increased self-awareness, and deeper cultural understanding come from discussing books
Be prepared to have your mind boggled. The earth has a population of more than 7.5 BILLION people.
In all of those billions of human beings, no two people are alike. Each individual is unique. Every individual on the face of the earth differs from each other in emotional, physical, and mental make-up. Every single one of us is different.
That means that there are 7.5 BILLION people who might not ever understand each other. Unless they read books.
David Baldacci is a writer of forty novels, all of which are national or international best-sellers. He’s a man whose work has been translated into 45 languages, whose books appear in 80 countries, and who’s sold 150 million copies of his books. Baldacci understands the power of books and their ability to bring people together and suggests that the world would be a better place if everyone read:
“Why can’t people just sit and read books and be nice to each other?”
My sentiments exactly. Reading books and then talking about them is a simple, low-cost strategy that can teach us about ourselves, enhance our social interaction, increase empathy, and develop cultural understanding.
The world might be a little better place if we all engaged in book talk.
Book talk reflects the personal prism of experience The world needs book talk. No doubt about it. It’s a great way to bring people together. Whether online or in-person, talking about books is a rational format for understanding other people’s viewpoints and for taking in perspectives that we might never have considered — or even known about.
Book talk is not as much about the novel itself as about our reaction to it.
The author’s story never changes. The words don’t miraculously shift sideways or shuffle around overnight. The plot and characters of a book are the same for everyone who reads it. The written story is permanently-preserved for the ages.
So why do people have such different responses to the same book? Wildly different reactions from person to person? Vastly different opinions on the worth of the book from reader to reader?
Every book interacts with the reader’s personal prism of experience, belief, and life-stage. The same book could be interpreted in 7.5 BILLION ways, but talking about that book shines a light on the unique perspective of each person.
We may talk about interactive technology in our modern world, but an avid reader knows that all literature is interactive. All we need is a mind, a heart, and the ability to understand language. Once we read the words, our souls create an emotional reaction to them based on our unique make-up of beliefs and life experiences.
By talking about books, we become more aware of our own biases and beliefs. We are aware of WHY we feel the way we do about the book. We remember experiences and turning points that influenced our opinions. Talking about books and our response to them prompts a new level of self-awareness.
Book talk and the popularity of female book clubs Throughout history, people have recognized the benefits of talking about books. Consider the evolution of the book club in America.
Book clubs exist for all ages. There are book clubs for men, and co-ed groups, and clubs that focus on particular themes. But from the early days of white European settlement in the United States, women, in particular, have been drawn together for book talk.
Women are relational creatures. We like to connect with others. We want to know the emotions and feelings of others. Book clubs — where discussion of a book means sharing our reactions to a story — are a natural fit.
As early as 1634, on the ship bound for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, rabble-rouser Anne Hutchinson organized an all-female group to discuss the Biblical text of the weekly sermons. (Sadly, the male leaders of the General Assembly — in all their wisdom — condemned Anne’s book group. Her feminist ideology and belief in a personal relationship with God later caused her to be labeled as a heretic.)
But Anne had started something. Beginning with that first ill-fated discussion group on the ship from England, book clubs took hold and were a common occurrence in America. From the Lyceum movement, to Margaret Fuller’s “Conversations,” to turn-of-the 20th-century female literary societies, to Chautauqua courses, to Oprah Winfrey’s national launch of her book club in 1996, talking about books has been a part of our national heritage. Book talk is an essential ingredient for the expansion of the mind and broadening of horizons.
Book clubs fulfill the need for social interaction and mental stimulation. In today’s world, if you can’t get together for a meeting, you can still take experience book talk online.
We’re a long way from Anne Hutchinson and the Trans-Atlantic-Bible-Book-Talk-Group of 1634, but discussing books is still popular. Online book clubs are trendier than ever. “Hello, Sunshine,” Reese Witherspoon’s book club, was launched in 2015 and has over 800,000 followers. Jenna Bush Hager’s Read with Jenna on the Today Show has a Facebook group with almost 27,000 groupies. Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf on Goodreads has over 231,000 followers.
And most of those followers are women.
Out of approximately 5 million book club members in the United States, 70–80% of them are female.
Even shy bookworms join book clubs engage in book talk. They often come out of their shell to interact with people who have been immersed in the same world as they have and who know the same characters and the same story.
Reading books and talking about them increases empathy
Listening to another person’s viewpoint encourages tolerance. You begin to understand WHY they feel the way they do, to grasp what it is about their background that influences their opinion. You get a glimpse into other cultures, belief systems, and rationales.
A good book talk with other people broadens your thinking. New perspectives emerge, new understandings of the viewpoints of others, and fresh awareness of how someone else feels become clear.
Research proves it. People who read fiction have been proven to be more empathetic and better able to read the emotions of others.
If you’re a reader, you’re probably not surprised.
Because books put us in other people’s shoes. By walking a mile with them, we see their perspectives. We understand their behaviors. We perceive what they feel. That personal prism of experience overflows and builds a shared aura of understanding.
Book talk improves relationship skills
Yes, reading makes us aware of other people’s feelings, but it also helps us understand our relationships with others.
When we fully digest the meaning of a story, our relationship skills improve. By observing a character’s actions, even a fictional character’s actions, we refine our behavior by considering what we would have done in the same situation. When we talk with other people about a fictional character’s interaction, we hear how they might have handled the same situation.
After reading and talking about books, we absorb multiple possible responses to a loved one’s behavior instead of just the one knee-jerk reaction we might have otherwise had. We now have more options with what we do in our real-life relationships.
Controversial books are great fodder for book talk
Consider these books, all of which have been considered “controversial.” time:
Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
1984 by George Orwell
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov
Many of these books are considered “classics.”
The most controversial books provide the best material for discussion. Controversy usually arises from the discussion of painful, real-world issues that are disturbing to contemplate. The deeper the book, the more ammunition there is for thought-provoking conversation. The more thought-provoking the conversation, the better the understanding of cultural concerns.
And the better the understanding of cultural concerns, the greater the production of tolerance and compassion.
The increase in tolerance and compassion makes the world a better place.
Award-winning books generate valuable book talk
It’s not just controversial books that arouse discussion. Talking about award-winning books is a valuable way to increase your cultural understanding.
The novels that win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction are considered to be
“distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.”
Reading and discussing award-winning books encourages awareness of diverse times, incidents, and regions of the American experience. It also exposes the reader to great writing. Plus, discussing what makes a book worthy of an award is always an eye-opening experience because everyone’s idea of “worthy” is different.
Award-winning books don’t have to be confined to the Pulitzer. There are, of course, Nobel prizes, National Book Award, the Edgar, the Booker, and The Colby, just to name a very few.
The language of book talk
When people ask me if I speak another language, I sometimes want to say, “Yes. I speak Book-ish.” because talking about books is a language all its own, a joy-filled jargon that other bibliophiles understand.
Lily King said in her recent novel, Writers and Lovers:
“It’s a particular kind of pleasure, of intimacy, loving a book with someone.”
You bet. Book talk is intimate. It’s revealing. It’s eye-opening, earth-shaking, and mind-melding.
Soul-salving, compassion-generating, and thought-provoking.
Pleasurable, peaceful, and powerful.
Book talk can save the world.