April 12, 2018

Reading is a political act

NoveList was at the Texas Library Association conference last week and, like everyone sitting in the audience as Rick Steves opened the conference, we were inspired. As part of his talk, Rick (and I hope he doesn’t mind that I call him Rick), quoted Mark Twain from Innocents Abroad:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.

 As Rick argued, the same can be said for reading. Immersing ourselves in a book gives us a broader perspective and challenges our understanding of the world. Going to the library, he argued, is like going to the airport. It’s a step down the road of experiencing the world and humanizing all the people in it.

It’s not in everyone’s budget to travel, but the library makes it in everyone’s budget to read. With the call to action Rick presented to the room of libraries, we have some reading recommendations for you.

Get out of your comfort zone

Rick pointed out a small change in our language -- that we used to say “Bon Voyage” to friends leaving on a trip and now we wish them a safe journey. To him, this small linguistic change represents the introduction of fear. It implies travel is scary. But, he argued, the best travel leaves us with increased empathy and those experiences are the best souvenirs.

Life changing experiences are part of the fun of travel memoirs. In travel memoirs, we get to step into another person’s shoes as they are jolted out of everything they believed in and find their way to a new sense of themselves.

If you’re looking for travel memoirs, NoveList has a genre “travel writing” that you can search. Type GN travel writing into the search bar for a list of all the travel memoirs in the NoveList database. Or, if you’re looking for some suggestions to get you started, check out the Travel Writing Recommended Reads lists. One in particular that caught my eye was Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir, In Other Words, about learning to write in Italian after moving to Rome.

Get crazy about stinky cheese        

Rick told this great story about learning how excited people could get about cheese and how one cheese monger described the smell of a particularly stinky cheese as “the feet of angels.” Whether or not you agree about the smell, he argued, travel gives us the opportunity to learn there are people all over the world excited about things you didn’t even know people could be crazy about. TLA shared a conference hotel with a Hot Wheels® convention, which created a similar experience for many librarians -- “I didn’t think conventions like this were a thing” was a common refrain.

Learning about people’s diversity of interests struck me as having a similar appeal to microhistories. In one book, you can learn more than you ever thought possible about bananas, forks, salt, oysters, and more. Reading over that list, you also learn that people are generally crazy about food, since many microhistories seems to be about food (though there’s at least one about hair). A quick search of “history” and whatever subject you’re interested in should get you some fun results for the variety of microhistories out there. And, if you want to learn more about cheese, check out The Science of Cheese by Michael Tunick.

Become another person

I want to travel with Rick Steves, especially since he judges the quality of his trip based on how many people he interacts with. Listening to him, everyone in the audience got the sense that he doesn’t simply shake a person’s hand, but listens to their needs, loves, wants, desires, and their fears. He takes the time to recognize the legitimate concerns of people different from himself – and who might have wants and fears in opposition to his. For Rick, this was all part of travel provides an opportunity to humanize the other. “They humanize us, and we humanize them.”

That’s the joy of a character-based story as well, whether it’s a romance novel, a memoir, a biography, a young adult fantasy -- or any one of the hundreds of genres and subgenres out there. A great book lets you sink into another person’s story. Even if you don’t agree with their actions and their choices, the reading experiences allows you to understand and think about the different choices people make develop a deeper appreciation for people on a universal level.

NoveList has the perfect appeal term for this. “Character-driven” a term we apply to books where the characters propel the storyline, rather than the plot. From our appeal browse, pick “storyline” from one drop-down and “character-driven” from the other. If you “View All” of the results, you can narrow your search down by genre, writing style, time period, age, etc. Character-driven books are a personal favorite of mine. 

The world is filled with joy and beautiful people

Rick closed his talk with that message, and it’s one we can all embrace. More importantly, as librarians, we get to play a role in help people transform themselves. As a part of that, it’s our duty to reach out and embrace the world through travel and a good book.

Jennifer Lohmann is a NoveList Consultant. 


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