Don’t Be a Selfish Reader

We read for so many different reasons. To learn. To laugh. To be scared. To escape. To name a few. Recently, I have begun to examine the reasons I read by looking at the books I read, why I liked them, and what that means. Most of the time, I read to learn something new, especially as it relates to being a kind and generous leader and the best library director I can be. Also, I’m a curious guy who is interested in a good bit of things. But when I examined the assumption in the sentence before this one more closely, I discovered that my curiosity is perhaps more narrow than I realized, and that might not be a good thing.

I recently read two novels: Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar and Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. From Homeland Elegies, I learned about Pakistan and the author and his family’s particular Pakistani-American experience. Ahktar’s novel is truly astonishing and reads more like a memoir and social essay. We meet his father, a Pakistani immigrant and Trump supporter. (His father’s relationship to Trump alone is worth reading the book in my opinion.) We learn about the colonialism that led to unprecedented violence between newly formed Pakistan and India in 1947. I realized how ignorant I am about this part of the immigrant experience. 

Interior Chinatown forced me to examine the white-black binary of American popular culture that erases almost every other race and ethnicity in the United States. Charles Yu’s innovative use of presenting the novel as a screenplay is brilliant. The real/surreal world in which the novel’s characters live shows us the one-dimensional roles American culture dole out to Asians. Characters may ascend from Generic Asian Man to Kung Fu Guy, but they will still be trapped in their prescribed, stereotyped role. I was captivated by this book. 

My level of ignorance (still considerable) of immigrant and indigenous American experiences that live outside of my formal and self-education in white and Black American histories revealed something to me. I am a selfish reader. I am drawn to books that help me think about my place in the world and how I can be a better person. I also read about my interests outside of novels: rock music, African American culture and history, leadership, mindfulness. 

You might say, that’s not so bad, and I would agree to an extent; but it’s only half of a larger equation. Self-examination and self-awareness minus exploration and understanding of others (people, animals, plants, robots?) leads us to individualistic thinking that harms our ability to connect to a collective, and even more importantly to a diverse collective. I’m talking about striking that balance between knowing oneself and knowing others. These two novels showed me the importance of expanding my curiosity of all that exists that doesn’t specifically relate back to me. Cuz that is where empathy comes from.

I am sitting here imagining so many readers (if you’ve made it this far) muttering at their screens, "Duh, Brad." There are already so many people who read (as well as live the other parts of their lives) searching for understanding of others. And I applaud them. But I’m writing for people who might be more like me, and hoping that perhaps this little essay speaks to you and reminds you of the power of stepping outside your comfort zone (stepping outside of yourself) and reading about things you aren’t sure you are interested in. It will increase your empathy. It will, I hope, create a yearning within you to strive for connection and belonging to a larger community that includes everyone and seeks more equity among us all. 

Yeah, reading two novels made me think all this. That’s the power of reading.

-Brad Allen is the Director of Lawrence Public Library.

*Cover image artist: Gracia Lam