Asked recently to name my favorite three books I looked around my apartment with its several thousand books and said to myself—“Really—three books?!”
I think I have read probably close to 10,000 books over my lifetime. I realize that I am not young but that is still a lot. I am a pretty voracious reader and have been since toddlerhood.
I was told by my mother that I read “The Pokey Little Puppy” myself at 4 but I think I just memorized it and she boasted that I could read. But I am pretty sure I was reading it by 5.
After that I devoured books like the cookie monster devours cookies (and I do that too.) I was above grade level all the way through school. In Atlanta, Georgia where I was then the libraries were segregated and those available to me I went through in no time. So we had to find new sources to feed the monster. So what, you say.
Well my life has been transformed by reading and I know firsthand how books can change your life.
First of all it took me away to worlds and introduced me to people that were so much more interesting than anything in my environment of the time. You judge—Atlanta vs. Narnia. Which would win? The brave tales of Anne Frank or George Washington Carver or Clara Barton or Helen Keller—were inspirational. Books also took me into a huge maple tree where my little sister could not reach me and I could not be found for chores. Escape on every level.
Secondly, reading taught me how to write. When you read good writers you absorb language at its best. Proper construction of sentences and phrases become second nature by osmosis. Again, another how books can change your life concept.
You can feel when it sounds right. Sometimes I would become a chameleon and take on the style of whomever I was reading. Sometimes I wrote convoluted sentences like Thomas Hardy (blessedly never like Faulkner) or other times I was terse as Hemingway. In due time I found my own voice but I had lots of others to try on first.
What all this has meant to me professionally has been everything. Because I was that kid who won all the summer reading library contests I was not daunted by the 700 pages or so we were (back in the day) expected to read every week at Bryn Mawr where I went to college.
Papers were not scary either. I still had lots to learn in college about how to be a better reader and writer and continued to learn more when I went to graduate school many eons later. But in the interval between college and my doctorate I spent 18 years in the corporate world. This was another place where the idea of how books can change your life created my world.
As a young divorcee of 25 I took a job in advertising offered by a family friend. I knew nothing about advertising. Nada! But I knew how to read and I read everything I could find about the field and especially absorbed the language of advertising. This is another story on how books can change your life.
So I could talk advertising with the best of them until I actually knew what I was doing. Then I took a corporate job in public affairs where a new department was being created to address corporate responsibility issues. No one knew what they were doing, but I started reading everything I could about the field and writing some kick-ass memos.
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People would ask me to write their memos. The EVP asked me to write his speeches. That writing thing was a huge help. Clearly when I switched later to marketing it was all about communications—and management. Those psych and political science courses in college came in very handy. I could also talk to folks at cocktail parties about whatever was on the NY Times best seller list or about the review of a new film that had been in the New Yorker.
That made me more of an insider (not all people of color are.) Of course when I shifted gears and became an academic the reading/writing thing became my life.
So what is the point—the point is that the program my granddaughters are in now to encourage them to read 1000 books by the time they hit first grade, means that they are likely to be on a path to success.
What studies tell us is that the single most important skill you can teach a child is to read. It opens doors. It opens minds. This is how books can change your life. The people on the top of the heap are on top of a heap of books.
Marcia Cantarella Ph.D. is the author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide (www.icanfinishcollege.com) former Dean at Princeton University and a consultant on higher education, access and success. (firstname.lastname@example.org) Dr. Cantarella is also our Official Expert on College and How To Finish College at HowToLearn.com and her work helps people start and finish college indeed showing how books can change your life.