The Reading Habit

by Frankie Y. Bailey


bookshelfWe humans are creatures of habit. Change, real change, does not come easily for most of us. We prefer to get into our comfortable groove and stay there. Change often requires an epiphany, a life-altering insight, that most of us rarely, if ever, experience. Perhaps this is why the more cynical among us would doubt that simply picking up a book could change a life.


Like many avid readers, I have had the experience of falling in love with a book. But, I confess here, I have not been faithful to my loves. After the first delight of discovery, I have strayed in search of other books that would engage, challenge, tantalize, take my breath away and leave me wanting more. My affairs with books have been passionate and many. And I am the better for my unfaithfulness to a singe book or any one author.

This is why when I am asked to name my favorite book I find myself embarrassed by my inability to name the one book that I would take with me to a desert island or even the five books or ten. I know that my favorite writer (now deceased) was a man named Richard Martin Stern. Mr. Stern was my favorite author because when I wrote to him as a teenager to tell him how much I loved his mystery series (featuring an African American, or actually biracial, female anthropologist), he wrote back to thank me for my letter. By doing so, he helped to set me on my own path toward becoming a writer. But this does not mean Mr. Stern’s Johnny Ortiz mysteries would be among my five books for a desert island. I think I would be more likely to take along books about how to stay alive.

But I’m rambling. . .the point I wanted to make about books and how they change lives is that it is more likely I think to be a cumulative effect. Change occurs in the process of developing the reading habit, learning to sit down with a book and open one’s mind to its contents.


This is a habit that avid readers often acquire early in life — because they were read to by parents or discovered books during their early days as a student. For avid readers, books are often not only sources of entertainment and information but a place to retreat when life is hard and unrelenting. This may have started in our teenage years. For those of us who were not among the popular kids in school, and I include myself, books may have helped us to survive the torturous years of high school. Or maybe the habit of reading kept us from picking up other assorted habits that would have placed us in jeopardy. Therefore, some of us with a lifelong habit of reading may owe at least some of the success we now enjoy to our relationship with books.

eurostiletWe know from the reports of numerous incarcerated men and women (including such famous former prisoners as Malcolm X and Chester Himes) that books and reading can play an important role in prisoner rehabilitation and reintegration. Therefore, it make perfect sense that books — literature — should also serve as alternative to incarceration for young offenders. The opportunity to develop the reading habit means that an offender has a door opened into the world of ideas. Developing the reading habit means that they acquire mental resources on which they can draw when they are faced with challenges or must make decisions. Although a few may be changed forever by an encounter with a single book, it is the habit of reading that will eventually change anyone who acquires it.


Actually, I lied. There is one book that I would take with me to a desert island. I hesitated to name it because it sounds a bit elitist — but keep in mind that this writer wrote not for the scholars who would later rave about him, but for 17th century theater-goers, a sometimes rowdy bunch. The one book that I would want to take along to that island would be The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s characters — Lear, Hamlet, Portia, Beatrice, Benedick, Lady Macbeth and all the others — have provided me with countless lessons about life. One surefire way to acquire the reading habit is to tackle the many pages of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. The man was prolific — for which I am grateful.


Frankie Y. Bailey is an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice, University at Albany (SUNY). She is the author/editor of a number of non-fiction books and a mystery series.


9 thoughts on “The Reading Habit

  1. Frankie, thanks so much for this clear and interesting essay. As you suggest, reading is a habit–one of the good ones, I’d say. Sometimes I think that that is part of the challenge we face at CLTL: Take harmful habitrs (drugs, for example) and transform them into good ones (like reading Shakespeare). ThIs is part of the process of criminal justice–yes?

  2. Certainly works like Shakespeare’s contain many valuable lessons that would be valuable to students in our type of program. I wonder, though, if the language might be a barrier for some students–especially those with junior high reading levels.

    Is there value, do you think, in using an adapted version (in which the writing is translated into more familiar vocabulary) of Shakespearean plays for students whose reading levels prevent them from accessing the original text?

    (As a side note–the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival has an offshoot program called Shakespeare Behind Bars, where inmates perform a play. They did a documentary on it a few years ago that garnered quite a bit of acclaim : )

  3. Pingback: The Reading Habit « Changing Lives, Changing Minds: A Changing … | ReadersRegion.Com

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  5. Frankie, Here’s a quick anecdote to affirm your post. I teach at a HBCU. Several years ago Leron wrote an essay about the troubles he got into as a young adolescent–petty theft, drug use, gang paricipation. Then somehow he found books; he started reading Walter Mosely. This ecperience led him to other books and writers. (His favorite character was, perhaps surprisingly, Sherlock Holmes.) The more he read, he said, the more he saw a world beyond his. He told me almost exactly what you’ve written, that books became “a place to retreat when life is hard and unrelenting.” From that point on, his life changed for the better. Literature, he said, made it possible to trace a path to college and create an interest in his major–criminal justice.

  6. We can certainly talk about experiences that are transformative and a book can provide that, but other things, like movies, can too. The transformations Frankie are talking about are ones of self-understanding, how you perceive your inner-psychological being and its relationship to the larger external world. This is a prerequisite to any capacity to act, but it is not sufficient. What is needed is to seize power, not individually, but collectively, acting with others. You can transform yourself, but if you are locked up, your ability to act upon the world is, to put it mildly, limited. Tookie Williams was transformed, but Governor Schwarzenegger still killed him.

  7. I agree with Yale that finding one’s self is only a first step to liberating change, but it is an important one. In my experience teaching incarcerated men and women, as well as students at the university, they can’t even begin to conceive of creating movements based upon collective power, until they have their developed their own sense of self and the individual power they can wield. Literature can instill confidence, provide a deeper understanding of one’s self, and and ignite the imagination.

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