The world opened up for me on the couch on the southside of Chicago when my mother handed me a book. I’ve been reading ever since–weekly trips to the library, gift books, and now an audio book ALWAYS in my car, so that I am listening on my way to the grocery store etc.

When my mother was dying in Chicago and I was living in Iowa, I consumed books in my car. I also try to read every night for two hours–if I can stay awake. I read books and print material–I read a real newspaper every day, the LA TIMES. I taught reading and literature as an English teacher. I read huge tomes studying to be an RN. I read struggling authors as a proofreader. What would my world be if I could not read?


We all have one. Some of us like to remember various parts of our story, some people actually can have mental health problems as they grow, because they are working so hard to suppress their story. But we all have one that either lights our days or shadows them.

Right now in one of my book clubs, we are reading Elizabeth Strout’s MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON. Strout is a pulitzer prize author and I’ve read all of her books. She writes fiction, allows herself to travel into the minds of her characters. She says profoundly:

I’m interested in ordinary people and what their inner lives are like. Since I was a young child, I have been aware that inside every person is a universe, and that we’ll never know what it feels like to be another person. Which is horrifying. 

Yes, it is. How can we marry, raise children, move them out into the world not truly knowing what it feels like to be them. How can we praise another or dismiss another, not truly knowing what it means to be that person. DO WE TRULY GIVE A DAMN?

I hope so. Reading and writing is about immersing oneself in other lives. Someone recently questioned me about MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON. Comment: it’s so depressing? Why are we reading it?

Why are we walking this earth and having children and/or making friends, living? Strout’s book reveals LIVES. You read STORY, that life comes alive on the page. So my answer to this questions will always be: EMPATHY. We read story to get into the cells and bloodstreams of other’s lives, to understand their joys and pains. Depressing? Yes, sometimes. Joyful, yes, other times. But here’s the thing–in Strout’s book the joy is subtle, just as it is in real life. Lucy Barton tells about a grade school teacher, Mr. Haley, who taught her about the Indians.

“Until then, I hadn’t known that we took their land from them with a deception that caused Black Hawk to rebel. I didn’t know that the whites gave them whiskey, that the whites killed their women in the cornfields. I felt that I loved Black Hawk as I did Mr. Haley, that these were brave and wonderful men, and I could not believe how Black Hawk was taken on a tour of cities after his capture.” 

With those lines you can just see Strout recalling a personal experience, yet putting it into the life of her fictional character, Lucy, yet revealing how OUR LIVES ARE OPENED UP when we learn things in school–when our horizons grow and change.

Later, Lucy says to her mother, “Mommy, do you know what we did to the Indians?” And her mother, out of the angst of her own down-trodden life, replies, “I don’t give a damn what we did to the Indians.”

In my own life there was Anna, who cleaned for us, whose age I could never determine, whose body was permanently bent from work, who chewed tobacco, told me she had a picture of Abraham Lincoln in her apartment and once told us about a relative who had been a slave. This is a true American story. And yes, knowing Anna set my life in a direction…what, how, how much? At least a beginning. All of our lives are beginnings and they can form us IF we let STORY in–if we listen, if we cry and ask for more.


In a recent article, David Ulin writes about the importance of story and our disrupted narrative in the United States. “On the one hand, America has always been a racist country. On the other, that has never before been rendered as acceptable. No, we are now in the midst of a broken story, and we have lost the ability to parse its lines.”

He goes on: “Stories, I’ve long believed, are connective, the only tool we have to reach out of our isolation, regardless of how fleetingly. This is as close as I get to faith, this notion that narrative can save us, even (or especially) if we cannot, finally, be saved.”

(If you do read the Bible, there are many stories about THE OTHER, but the purpose of the Bible is to bring the reader to Christ, and Christ never rejects THE OTHER.)

Olin writes about the 1980s, when he took a repetitive drive through Barstow CA to LA. He writes: “For hundreds of miles, radio gave up only farm reports and God talk…and when I stopped to eat or sleep or fill the tank, I was never unaware that I was a stranger in a strange land. ‘You a Jew, boy?’ someone once asked…and though he wasn’t exactly threatening (more curious I want to tell you), there was a moment when I wasn’t sure how to respond. (Earlier in this piece, Ulin writes: how could I believe racism has been vanquished when according to the Guardian Newspaper, African American men between 15 and 34 were nine times more likely to be killed by police in 2016 than other Americans.”

Ulin then quotes Maxine Hong Kingston from her book “The Woman Warrior”: “A story can take you through a whole process of searching, seeking, confronting, through conflicts, and then to a resolution.” YES, that’s what we need more and more.To get to that resolution.

But then Ulin quotes Ernest Hemingway: “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and there is no true storyteller who would keep that from you.” True–yet as Ulin reminds us, “most stories don’t continue far enough, which means we have no choice but to engage with them as part of a continuum.” Yes, WELCOME TO TODAY! Welcome to becoming part of another’s story through listening, though a handshake, through volunteering or sending a check.

And finally, In MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, Strout has Lucy meet and learn from a writing teacher, Sarah Payne. Payne tells Lucy: “If you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.”


I am going to go with David Ulin’s conclusion, because it says it much better than I could.

This is how the world works: first we tell ourselves a story, then we dream our way inside it as a way of bringing it to life. It’s why we have to be careful about the narratives we evoke or create, because they are bound by the limits of what we can imagine, the limits of our ability to think. The reason books and reading remain essential is because they are still the most effective mechanisms by which to crack open the universe. Think about it: when we read, we soul travel, in the sense that we join, or enter the consciousness of another human. We EMPATHIZE–we have to–because our experience is enlarged.

photo credit: Jasu Hu THE NEW YORK TIMES.

12 thoughts on “WHY I READ…STORY

  1. Beautifully done! It is through their stories that I learn who people are. My favourite thing is to sit and listen or, better yet, exchange. I am always interested in their backstory. What happened that makes them who they are.
    And I, too, LOVE TO READ!!!

    • Diane, you are woman of substance, who find LIFE in so much of what you experience. And you share it.
      I love how you tell your story. Thanks for your comment and for being my friend, Beth

  2. What a great post Beth. It is a love story to reading! Yes reading opens our world, lets in people we would never meet, exposes us to a reality we will never live, takes us to locations we will never visit and brings laughter, joy, empathy, sorrow, kinship and knowledge.

  3. Beth Havey
    9:36 AM (2 minutes ago)

    to Haralee

    You know, Haralee, sometimes the comments we share, truly make the day–and this is one of them. Thanks for being my friend.
    It means a great deal. Beth

  4. I’ve always loved science fiction because it asks a “what if” and then answers it. The really good SF books (and the dystopian literature I love if it is done right) explores people caught in that “what if” world: how they live, how they love, how they interact with each other, how they find meaning in their world. I love those kinds of stories because they take me outside of myself and, yet, teach me about myself.

    • Thanks, Alana, for me that a different picture of science fiction. You just taught me something that I never considered, as I don’t read much science fiction, though Fahrenheit 451 is a favorite.

  5. I agree with Ulin’s conclusion. Having just finished my memoir I can relate to it. There’s no imagination in memoir, per se, but our memory is ours alone. I added a quote from Justice Sotomayor’s memoir about how personal it is. We all have our own memories and it doesn’t matter if they don’t align with someone else’s.

    • Beautifully said. Each of us is a spectacular individual–that alone is what is so exciting about living and meeting people. Thanks for reading.

  6. Interesting to read about your love of books today. I just finished reading the review in the NY Times Book Review about Orleans’ new book about the Library fire that happened in 1986. It received a very positive review. I don’t remember the fire, but supposedly her book is beautifully written. It reminded me of my trips to the library as a kid. I feel like I need to read more during my life after 50. Just downloaded a new book onto my Kindle. I like having the access to many books on my Kindle, yet sometimes I feel like it’s not as satisfying as when I was a kid and went to the library and took out new books. Thanks for reminding me to keep reading.

    • I love exchanging ideas with people who have library memories. I also have a Kindle, but find myself wanting to TURN THE PAGE! Thanks for reading and
      commenting, and I will look into the Orleans book. I think preserving libraries is all about preserving our culture, even though we now have the internet which
      sometimes feels like it could disappear in a blink, but paper and leather no. Beth

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