Books Matter - Michael Roberti

26 Aug 2023

One of my favorite articles that I share with my students at the beginning of a school year starts like this:

“The question of why we read and what books actually do for us is as old as the written word itself, and as attractive. Galileo saw reading as a way of having superhuman powers. For Kafka, books were “the axe for the frozen sea within us”; Carl Sagan held them as “proof that humans are capable of working magic”; James Baldwin found in them a way to change one’s destiny; for Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, they stood as our ultimate frontier of freedom.” (Popova)

To me, that is one of the most important things we can give each other as fellow human beings: our stories. I’m not only talking about the true ones or even the events that actually happened to us—though those are important. No, just as essential as sharing our truth is the value of sharing our fiction. Those worlds and characters that spring forth out of our imaginations and come alive in the telling.

I could list a million quotes by a variety of different authors and never come close to scratching the surface of why this is. Whether it is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addressing the crowd at a TEDtalk or Ray Bradbury warning us about the evils of censorship, you will hear over and over again how important stories are. Reading, writing, and storytelling are essential, profoundly human, and important ways we can connect across cultures and develop empathy towards those that we might mistake as “other.”

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Think about it. It’s difficult to be prejudiced against someone when you are walking a mile in their shoes through their story. It’s why representation matters so much. It’s why we should read a broad spectrum of literature and step outside of our comfort zones. With the right stories we can reach right back into the past and learn from our ancestors and understand what it is like to live  very different lives than the ones we are leading.

Stories have an amazing capacity to cross borders and span generations. A truly great story has a way of settling into our bones and changing how we view the world on a base level. Every time I read a book I’m not the same person I was when I started it. I’ve been reading for over 30 years and I have a long list of those works that impacted me, but I always remember the first one that changed my path. If you are a reader, I bet you can also name the first story that captured your heart. Mine was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S Lewis. 

I spent so much of my youth reading and rereading those books, trying my hardest to escape to Narnia, and hoping to one day share that story with my future children. There were lessons and truths in those books that still resonate with me today—the real nature of heroism, the insidious and slippery slope of evil, and Turkish Delight is worth betraying your entire family for. 

From the works of C.S Lewis, I eventually found Tolkien and then later Abercrombie and Martin, and eventually became a fantasy author myself. And those were far from the only books that changed my life. 

As a teen my favorite teacher, Mrs. Monson, put Fahrenheit 451 in my hands, and with something that simple, she created a monster. The images presented by Ray Bradbury made me determined to do whatever I could never to end up like the complacent masses in his book. That story had power. The best books do. Even the ones that are read just for fun can have a completely life-altering effect. I read Fahrenheit 451, and it was 100% responsible for my decision to become a teacher.

But this isn’t about me and my love of books. It’s so much greater than that. Who cares what books did for me? Let’s talk about the future.

Did you know that students who read 15-20 minutes a night have dramatically better test scores and academic outcomes than those who don’t? What’s even more shocking is that reading scores and literacy rates have been used as key indicators by governments for predicting what eventual prison populations will be. More impressive still is that books are so powerful that the mere PRESENCE of them in a household is linked to a child’s educational achievement. Yes, even if you don’t read them (though you should)!

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In that spirit, my son has been listening to me read him The Hobbit for the last few weeks, and he is constantly asking questions about the world and finding more things about Bilbo Baggins he relates to (more than just his height). Though my son is a reluctant reader, something about Middle Earth has grasped onto him and caught his attention. I’m hoping this is just the start for him on his journey to loving books, but even if it isn’t, I’m glad this book worked for him at this time, and he got something out of it.

One day I hope the books I write have the same sort of impact on others. I don’t know what lessons I have to teach, but I hope I can contribute in some small way and make a difference to someone. Ultimately, to me, that’s the magic of books. We learn important lessons like small doesn’t mean weak, beautiful doesn’t always mean good, or that Frankenstein both wasn’t the monster and yet he totally was.

These thoughts and conversations guide us in subtle ways as we decide what we think about our place in the world or what we do or don’t want from our society in the future. As an author, that’s something I want to give the world. As a reader, that’s a gift I want to receive. 

The world is a complex place filled with heroes and villains and bystanders. Sometimes it can feel hopeless for simple folk like you and me to stand up to those in power or to have our voices heard. Even if we do speak up, sometimes it feels like change won’t happen.

So how can people like us fight the evils of our world? In my opinion, the pen will always be mightier than the sword, and storytelling can be the ultimate act of rebellion. It gives people something to believe in and a reason to ask important questions. So pick up a book, write one, or whatever you feel like doing. Just keep the stories coming and make sure to pass them along to your children. By engaging with stories you are making a difference whether you realize it or not.

About Michael Roberti


Michael Roberti is an author, educator, and former punk rocker. He writes books set in the world of Aithe—a world where writing disappears when the author dies.

You can check more of him on Twitter / his website