by Frankie Y. Bailey
We 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.
We 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.