After college, I was struck by a drunk driver and left unable to walk for nearly a year. Living a life in bed, pre-Internet, afforded two things: a lot of writing and reading. A friend gave me a copy of The Alchemist with the vivid purple cover and intriguing third eye pyramid. A titanium plate and screws were fusing my femur, but this book mobilized me--inspiring me to go for my biggest dream and become a writer.
Knowing the impact that one perfect novel had on my life, I set out with my colleagues, Paul Stiff and Josh Conviser, to understand America's relationship with books--research we were doing for a grant from the National Science Foundation for our company's innovation in book discovery. Over the course of six weeks, we sat down and interviewed 100 readers from various backgrounds and of all ages, mostly living in the Bay Area.
We started with the simple task of learning more about how readers find books--and ended with stories of how people fell in love with reading, stories about their earliest reading memories, how books helped them get through tough times in their lives, and how books literally saved them.
Crazy intimate stories. About books.
Books Keep Us Connected
Ask a reader about the books they love and something magical happens. When people discuss books that matter to them, they end up talking about far more than just the book. They speak of experience, life, trauma, love, and echo how Anna Quindlen captured the power of the reading experience, "In books, I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream . . . "
While readers might comment on language and how much they loved the writing, or vividly recall a scene that struck them, the connection goes far deeper. In talking about such a novel, one reader told us she'd "pay a million bucks to read that book again." She loved the writing, loved the story, but far more important in those pages, she learned something about her dad. Those insights allowed her to appreciate him more, to see his complexities and understand him better. Books became the cord kept them connected throughout his life.
We heard more stories, detailed descriptions, the pulpy, musky smells of favorite libraries and the sounds of cracked leather reading chairs that had stayed in families for generations. In the space of an hour, some shared things they had never told anyone. As a result, most of them hugged us at the end. We felt like fast friends with a relationship rooted in something that matters. Something that's real and lasting.
Books Are A Portal
What we realized is that by asking readers why books mattered to them, we were allowing these people to tell us why they matter as individuals. Talking about a book that really resonated with you is a great way to share who you really are--what matters to your head and your heart. Books become a portal into the core of a person. What readers shared was so unscripted, so real and so raw, that we were left euphoric afterward. One reader said, "I feel like I'm talking to my shrink," then laughed and thanked us for not charging her.
Most unexpected, the readers we interviewed left in a happier place and raised our spirits along the way. Magic? Possibly, but some measurable shift happens when people speak about the books that matter to them.
Reading The Alchemist urged me to understand, and see, the unseen world. To believe in magic, faith, possibilities. The inherent wisdom in this one book became the foundation for my healing and launched a new journey to help people find the right book at the right time. As one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, says in this Booxby video, "I wouldn't have had a shot at a great life if I hadn't been a person of the book."