Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone: Reading for Experience by Linda Rodriguez
It’s nice to be comfortable. On a winter morning when you’re warm snuggling under the covers and the last shreds of your dreams are still within reach, don’t you hate to have to leave your cozy blankets and step out onto the cold floor? I think everyone does. However, if you stayed comfortable in bed for the rest of your life, you’d cripple yourself and eventually your haven of comfort would become quite unpleasant.
There are lots of areas in our life where we need to step out of our comfort zones in order to grow and achieve our goals. It can be difficult to do this because it feels so weird outside of the spaces where we’re accustomed to spending time, and that leads to discomfort. Most of us, however, have learned that we have to stretch ourselves at times.
We read for enjoyment, delight, relaxation, and to learn and experience vicariously—and that last involves sometimes leaving the warm cocoon of blankets and stepping out onto the cold floor of books and authors we might not have chosen ordinarily. This is important for readers who want to use their reading to enlarge their world and the perspective through which they view reality.
Too often, we tend to read people who believe what we believe, who have the same backgrounds as we do. It’s natural and normal—like looking in the mirror. Still, a kind of reading that’s especially valuable is reading to learn other ways of thinking and seeing the world. If we keep to our circumscribed lives, how can we understand characters who are different from ourselves? Without the entrée into the world of someone from a different culture provided by either a long, close friendship with or a book written by a member of that culture, we will be doomed to know only false stereotypes about whole swathes of our society.
How can we learn if we only read people who think and write the same way we do? We need to use our reading to add breadth to our experiences. To do that, we must read people who are different from us—people who write differently and think differently, people who have had different experiences in life from ours. There is a whole world of books out there by people whose entire experience of life has been different from yours. At one time, the only books to be found in this part of the world were written by wealthy educated European white men. Now, we can read and learn from the experiences of working-class Irish plumbers, overachieving Chinese law professor mothers, Filipino cab drivers, and African American choreographers.
Biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs are a wonderful resource for this broadening of experience, as are poetry and fiction by these diverse authors. If you are a writer, your characters will thank you, as will your readers. And for those who read but don’t write, the other people who share your world will be grateful for the breadth of understanding and compassion that your wider reading will bring to you. Recent research shows that reading fiction, in particular, broadens and deepens empathy, one of the qualities that makes us truly human. Brain research has shown that what we experience through reading leaves the same deep impact on our brains that an actual experience does. In a small way, you will experience parts of that life and add it to your store of life experiences on which to draw in living your own life.
Don’t always read only the people who look like you, sound like you, and write like you, whose skills, backgrounds and experiences are just like your own. You won’t find much to stretch your understanding or broaden your experiences there.
But what if you don’t know where to look to find the books that will help you learn new ways of looking at reality and entire new worlds? Ask your librarian. Most of them have their jobs because they love books. All of them are knowledgeable about books.
Also, I have a short list of writers to start you off. I’m not giving you citations to their books. Take this and ask your librarian or look them up online. Almost any book can be ordered through interlibrary loan, and almost all of these author’s books are available online. Often your indie bookstore can help you find them and order them. Or go to my blog, which is listed at the top of the reading list. I’m in the middle of a long-running series of posts there about writers of color who are pretty unknown to the general world—even the general literary world.
This list is in no order and totally idiosyncratic. The “importance” of any writer on the list has nothing to do with the place their name holds on the list. It is filled with writers of color since they are more likely to be unknown to you and harder to find if you don’t know where you’re going. It has no mainstream white literary writers on it because those writers are much easier for you to find and are probably taught to you in school. Or you can go to any book store to find a wide variety of books by such writers or a used book store to find slightly out-of-date anthologies loaded with samples of the work of wonderful white writers of the mainstream literary culture. Go find them and learn from them. I’m trying to help you move beyond the easily available.
This list is short on Middle Eastern writers because I hadn’t been reading as many of them recently and couldn’t spout their names off as easily. Do some research. Ask your librarian. Google those names I have listed, and you will find more. This is just to kick-start your foray into other ways of living the American experience and other ways of seeing the world.
There are also all the books in translation from writers of other countries—and those are only the visible tip of a gigantic world literature. A tiny percentage are translated in America because the word on the publishing street is that Americans don’t read literature in translation. Do everything you can to widen your perspective on the world. It will all make you a better writer, a better reader, and a better citizen. You’ll know you’re a true reader when all your mirrors turn into windows.
Naomi Shihab Nye
Carlos Andres Gomez
Luis Alberto Urrea
Craig Santos Perez
Allison Hedge Coke
Juan Felipe Herrera
Leslie Marmon Silko
Benjamin Alire Saenz
Do you have authors to add to Linda’s list? Share them in the comments!
Linda Rodriguez’s third Skeet Bannion novel, Every Hidden Fear, was published May 6 and is available for order now. Her second Skeet mystery, Every Broken Trust, was a selection of Las Comadres National Latino Book Club and is currently a finalist for both the International Latino Book Award and the Premio Aztlan Literary Prize. Her first Skeet novel, Every Last Secret, won the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition and an International Latino Book Award. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” has been optioned for film. Find her on Twitter as @rodriguez_linda, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/LindaRodriguezWrites, and on her blog http://lindarodriguezwrites.blogspot.com.
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