I teach a seminary course in Theology and Literature, and I asked my students on the last day of class to tell me why people should read. I got my main points from them:
Read for information. Want to learn about women at the time of the earliest Christians? You can find books about that. Want to learn how submarines work? Your library has resources. Reading can expand our knowledge. In the days of Martin Luther, when a man was ordained, he marked the occasion by gifting the local monastery with a book—because books were so rare. Fast forward five hundred years—we can download scores of classics for free, find inexpensive paperbacks, and shop in stores full of used books. We can get PDFs of academic articles from all over the world, and we can have the latest Nobel winner delivered to our door. Reading is the doorway through which we enter all these worlds of ideas.
Read for empathy. Reading is the closest we’ll get to omniscience. Through reading, we can get inside the mind of another and see the world from his or her perspective. According to Harvard Business Review, “We may be assuming that reading for knowledge is the best reason to pick up a book.” But research “suggests that reading fiction may provide far more important benefits than nonfiction… Reading literary fiction helps people develop empathy, theory of mind, and critical thinking.” And empathy can change us. For all its weaknesses, the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in two volumes in 1852, allowed nineteenth-century literate Americans to see the world through the eyes of enslaved persons. Consequently, Stowe’s work “helped lay the groundwork for the [American] Civil War.” Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy is helping later generations to feel the effects of an unjust prison system and advocate for change.
Read for exposure to people and places. Earth is currently comprised of 196 countries. One of my friends has a goal to read a book set in each one of them. Why? So she can better understand the world. She won’t get to travel to all 196 countries, but she can enter far-off places through her imagination. I will probably never visit totalitarian North Korea, but the Pulitzer winner The Orphan Master’s Son allowed me to experience life under its cruel dictatorship without having to suffer its abuses.
Read for companionship. When my husband and I experienced a decade of infertility and pregnancy loss, I often felt alone in my grief as my church experienced a baby boom. Reading books by others who had gone through the same trauma helped me feel less alone. As I read, I thought, “You too?
Read as a spiritual discipline. In his book Under the Unpredictable Plant, the late pastor Eugene Peterson lists reading as one of the spiritual disciplines. When he was a young pastor lacking role models, he holed himself up in his office for several hours a week and read great novels. One such work was The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky’s book shows grace embodied in the lives of several characters. Les Miserable’s “candlestick” scene provides another such picture of what grace can look like lived out in human interaction.
The Count of Monte Cristo showed me why revenge never satisfies. Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time convinced me that “perfect love casts out fear” long before I realized she was quoting 1 John. Mako Fujimura in his book Culture Care helped me see the need for “slow art,” described by David Brooks of the New York Times as “a small rebellion against the quickening of time.”
Why do you read? How have books changed you?
Dr. Sandra Glahn is professor of Media Arts and Worship at Dallas Theological Seminary and author of numerous books, including Latte with Luke (AMG). You can find her at aspire2.com, or follow her on Twitter: @sandraglahn
 Kaufman, Will (2006). The Civil War in American Culture. Edinburgh University Press.