Opening the Doors of the Universe

Makenna Wessell
Jackson High School
Grade 12

The bleak reality within Ray Bradbury’s novel “Fahrenheit 451” is one that has terrified bibliophiles since its publication in 1953. In the book, television-obsessed people refuse to engage one another mind-to-mind, choosing to eradicate conflicting opinions rather than risk offending anyone. They joke about war, famine and death. Many activities we would consider food for the mind and soul are regarded as crude and vile. Among them: spending time in nature or by themselves, thinking independently, having meaningful conversations, and reading books. “Intellectual” has become the most heinous swear word. What is truly upsetting about this is the government did not even have to force this society to abandon such practices; they chose to do so of their own accord. As Bradbury astutely points out, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

Wouldn’t we all hate to live in a society such as that? But is the world we are living in now really so different? We walk on eggshells, burying our own opinions until we are absolutely certain others will agree with us. We neglect the natural world in favor of a virtual one. We choke on serious issues, unable or unwilling to discuss them as they should be discussed.

Instead, we water the world’s issues down to memes and jokes we can then easily swallow without learning anything from them at all. We dismiss literature and reading as “boring” and “unnecessary” and completely take for granted all the wonder it can bring into our lives. Rather than thinking for ourselves, we allow thoughts to be funneled down into us from whomever we happen to hear it from first. Nevermind accuracy. Nevermind truth.

For those of us able to separate ourselves from the situation and see it as it is, our reality is eerily similar to that of Bradbury’s post-apocalyptic world of fiction. And yet, we cannot — and should not — lose hope. It is our duty as freethinkers to usher the world back into a place we would want to live in. It is vital we take our lives back, take our minds back. We must be able to appreciate all reading does for us as a society. It is able to expand our minds, hearts and souls, if only we utilize it to its fullest.

Reading benefits the mind in more ways than I can put into words. It improves basically every cognitive function in one way or another. Reading can lead to improved vocabulary, knowledge, memory, analytical thinking, focus and concentration, and writing and communication skills, all of which greatly benefit the individual, as well as the whole. As many such individuals come together to discuss and solve the problems of the world, they utilize their cognitive skills, which have been strengthened by reading, to do so.

Reading also decreases our risk of dementia as we grow older. According to a study held by Robert S. Wilson at the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center, “Those who engaged in reading, writing and other mentally-stimulating activities in early and late life were less likely to show physical evidence of dementia, such as brain lesions, plaques and tangles.” Exercising one's brain is just as important as exercising the body. Both contribute to the longevity and quality of life, as well as to the continued functionality each can achieve as they grow older with us. Our minds are the vessels for our thoughts, emotions and actions. Without them, we could do nothing for ourselves, let alone for others.

Being kind to others grows increasingly more important as the world continues to view it as less and less so. Reading can help with this, also. Reading is the key to understanding, and understanding is the key to acceptance. Keith Oatley conducted a study at the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto, Canada, which proved just this. "Similar to people who improve their flying skills in a flight simulator, those who read fiction might improve their social skills. Fiction might be the mind's flight simulator,” Oatley wrote. When we read, we step into the shoes of characters who may be very different from us personally. Whether it be racially, ethnically, or a difference of belief systems or views, we still get the chance to see what it would be like in a different person's life. Atticus Finch may have said it best when he said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb in his skin and walk around in it” (Lee 16). By reading about the various cultures, religions or viewpoints that surround us, we broaden our hearts to let others in.

Reading not only helps us radiate our empathy outward, it also turns it in on itself and helps us to love ourselves as we are. Believing oneself to be alone in the world can do real damage to one's self-esteem. But no one is ever truly alone. Reading can make that known to people who may be struggling with their own self-worth at the time. Many of us find ourselves in books. We relate to the characters on an integral level. Seeing ourselves as the hero in someone else’s story opens us up to accepting ourselves as the hero of our own. A quote by William Nicholson rings true in this regard: “We read to know we’re not alone.” Reading allows us to access our empathy more readily, and in doing so, we are better equipped to be the best, kindest versions of ourselves we can be. And thus, we make the world a better place one person at a time.

Completing the trinity of areas improved upon by reading, in addition to the mind and the heart, reading also betters our souls. I have asked many friends what they think the best part of reading is, and a vast majority reply with something along the lines of, “It allows me to escape from this world and into a better one.” Even authors such as Mason Cooley answer questions such as this similarly: “Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.” It can take us away from all our earthly problems and into worlds as magnificent as we can imagine them to be. Worlds where good always prevails over evil. Worlds where justice and truth are never forgotten. Worlds full of wonder, excitement and lessons to be learned. It can expose us to the truths within our world we don’t even realize we’ve been blind to until we look at them through a different lens, allowing ourselves to understand our own world better, as well as how we would change it.

Escaping the reality in which we live, if only for a time, can give us the clarity we need to see the world as we want to make it. Maybe one day, those of us who have achieved this clarity can make it so. We have the power to change the world if only we know what we want to do with it. If only we fight for that vision with all that we have within us. If we all join together and focus our wills as one, “impossible” will be eradicated from our new world’s vocabulary.

Although Earth as it is now seems to bear a concerning resemblance to the realities within many a dystopian novel, we readers hold the key to changing it for the better, by simply bettering ourselves and getting others to do the same through reading. Reading can improve people in every aspect of their existence, be it mind, heart or soul. By rejecting what is becoming the norm — an unwillingness to read — we can avoid the bleak existence the characters in “Fahrenheit 451” found themselves in, and instead lead stimulating lives full of intellect, creativity and wonder. Books open the doors of the universe up to us, if only we are willing to turn the keys.