I believe strongly in the power of accumulation. That enough small things ultimately lead to something substantial. Whenever I’m especially sensitive to the world’s struggles and about any hope of progress, I look to the small things. All the bite-sized, actionable steps we can take, all the manageable-yet-ultimately-meaningful things we can do to make our world happier and healthier. Most of us probably won’t make a singular contribution that will lead to consequential improvement; our world’s ailments are too complicated and too chronic. But doing one small thing, then another, and another — that’s attainable. And, over time, impactful.
These small things can take many forms. We can volunteer or fundraise, organize or protest. Or one of my favorites — we can stay well-read. As a lifelong bibliophile, I read and discuss books because it brings me joy. And as a lifelong lover of humanity, I read and discuss books as a small step toward making this world emotionally safer for all of us. Books, with their pages full of ideas, experiences, and ways of the world I likely never would have encountered otherwise. Books, my favorite way to build understanding: both an increased level of knowledge and a broader sense of compassion.
We so easily assume the worst about others because we don’t understand them. Research speaks to what I’ve been lucky enough to witness and personally enjoy again and again: Reading books gives us glimpses into the lives of strangers, makes us more empathetic. This is especially true when we read books, either fiction or memoir, that tell someone else’s story. Unlike TV or movies, in which viewers witness characters’ experiences and interactions, reading lets us inside another person’s heart and mind. We have access to the thoughts they don’t share with anyone else, the actions they take when no one else is around. It’s arguably the closest we get to the proverbial notion of walking around in someone else’s shoes.
As a white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied woman, I don’t have to fight as hard to be seen, for my thoughts and opinions to be heard. Validated. One of the ways I’ve tried to make myself a worthy ally is by learning about realities I have never known. In the last couple of years alone, a handful of books have made me more sympathetic to how unbearable this world can be for anyone who isn’t cisgendered.
“The Death of Vivek Oji,” a novel that contrasts people who see the gender-nonconforming Vivek for who they are with those who don’t. “An Ordinary Wonder,” told from the perspective of an intersex protagonist in a heteronormative culture and family. The memoir “Gender Queer,” possibly one of the most banned books in America, about the author’s unchartered journey to identify as gender neutral. These books have all made me more closely examine my privilege as someone who has never had to question her sexuality, let alone her gender. They’ve all made me reconsider my blind spots, realize how lucky I am that I’ve never had to wonder about the difference between who I am and how I’m perceived, let alone defend my very existence to people too close-minded to let me be myself.
I know better than to believe that simply reading books by or about people with different lived experiences than mine makes me especially informed. It does, however, prompt me to pay more attention, to be more introspective, to respond more kindly.
I notice these same behaviors in my friends who are book lovers. As much as I revel in hearing their reactions to a plot twist, or how satisfied (or not) they are with a book’s ending, my favorite part of discussing books with friends is hearing how it impacts them, how this small thing of reading shifts their mindsets. We’ve read memoirs by Nicole Chung that have given us insight into an experience we don’t know — transracial adoption — and are now a little bit more sensitive to. “Our Missing Hearts” highlighted how close we are to this novel’s dystopian setting, and heightened our awareness of the vulnerability of targeted groups. Bit by bit, book by book, we jointly contribute more of what our world needs: curiosity, critical thinking, compassion. A gradual yet sustainable accumulation of honoring more and more people’s humanity.
But I’ve never experienced the power of books the way I did as a classroom teacher. I taught high school English in Baltimore City Public Schools for over a decade; for each of those years, I had the privilege of witnessing my students, whom I call my lovelies, become more thoughtful and nuanced when considering character development or author’s purpose. For most of my career, I devoted Fridays to Socratic Seminars, student-led discussions about the text we read that week. A common line of questioning my lovelies pursued was about the protagonist’s motives: Why would Janie react to Joe like that? Should Okonkwo be that hard on Nwoye?
This type of conversation required my lovelies to examine someone else’s interiority, what they value or fear. What they’ve been through. What they never want to go through again.
Questions we could all ask to try to make sense of one another. A small thing that could lead to lasting understanding.
Ever since last school year, when I left teaching for health reasons, I’ve asked myself what’s next. How I’ll contribute to Baltimore now that I’m out of the classroom. What my role will be in making this city better. Even though I’m not yet recovered enough to make this type of commitment, I’m eager to do so.
In the meantime, I read. I’ve read memoirs and novels, collections of poetry, of essays. I read because I want to keep my mind open and my heart ready to learn how to love others better. I read because, ever since I was a little girl, books have been my safe space, the place I turn when I don’t know that everything is going to be okay, but I need, even if just briefly, to believe that maybe it will be.
Kerry Graham is a creative in residence for The Baltimore Banner.