The act of reading: why words are beloved

Today is National Read a Book Day, which, as you might expect, is a day that encourages everyone – our students, colleagues, children, mothers and grandfathers – to pick up a book and start reading.

Although the act of reading can often be a quiet and solitary affair, National Read a Book Day promotes experiencing literature in all its forms. Within a book, the Book Day says, you can find “an inexpensive entertainment, education, and time machine.” You can read silently in bed, or read loudly “to your pets or to your stuffed animals and plants”.

But books can also be powerful social tools, enabling students to confront challenging and disturbing topics. Most famously, Orwell’s dystopian visions stretch and highlight the potential dangers of totalitarianism, while texts like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five provides insight into the psychological impacts of war. This ability to evoke tragedy, however, does not negate the fact that literature is capable of depicting tremendous beauty. As National Read a Book Day states: “Some sentences are better than kisses.”

This, in my opinion, is one of the novel’s defining traits. Much like life, stories can simultaneously capture incongruous moments of pain and wonder, grief and celebration – a sentiment that is typified by one of my favourite classroom texts: Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

The fifth of Morrison’s eleven novels, Beloved is an emotive ghost story revolving around the character of Sethe, whose experiences are based loosely on the real-life figure of Margaret Garner – a former African American slave, who, rather than allowing her child to be forced into slavery, killed her own infant daughter. At the opening of the novel, a woman named Beloved – presumed to be the ghost of Sethe’s child – returns to haunt Sethe’s family home on 124 Bluestone Road. One of the elements that makes Beloved so special is its vivid characterisation. Describing her own style to the New Republic, Morrison explains that she “stand[s] with the reader, hold[s] his hand, and tell[s] him a very simple story about complicated people.” In this sense, Morrison never judges her characters. Her sympathetic prose encourages students to understand the characters’ complex inner-worlds without judgement. She does not condemn Sethe’s decision to murder her own daughter, unlike her partner Paul D, who describes Sethe’s love as “too thick.” Neither, however, does Morrison defend it. She simply allows us to hear Sethe’s reasoning – her belief that “thin love ain’t love at all.”

But at the heart of Beloved is its use and thematisation of language. One of its central questions is: how do we speak or write about trauma – those events that Morrison refers to as “unspeakable things unspoken”? The answer is a book filled with poetic descriptions of the seemingly inexpressible. Towards the end of the novel, for instance, we hear the voice of Beloved, figuratively describing the nuances of contrasting types of loneliness: “There is a loneliness that can be rocked,” she says. “…Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own.”

In my view, this passage encapsulates exactly why we want young people to read. Not only can stories like Beloved educate students about important historical events, such as the US Slave Trade, but they can also expose them to new language and turns of phrase. Through this language, students are able to find unique ways of processing emotions as universal – but also as individually felt – as loneliness. They can experience deeper understanding of their own emotions, and the emotions of others. This is the power and importance of words. This is why students and teachers alike should pick up a book on National Read a Book Day.

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