Imagine there’s a world without books. Without authors.

Now that would be dystopia! No Hunger Games, no Suzanne Collins, no archery craze that follows.

But also — much worse.

No holy books, no Shakespeare, no novels, none of the eight million books currently available on Amazon.

Empty Shelves

Empty Shelves Cry Out for Books

We depend on books, whether on paper or digital, for far more than we know.

Do we take them for granted?

Books Open Our Imaginations

Did you know that when the people in charge of prisons want to predict how many “spaces” they’ll need in the future, they base their algorithm on the number of current ten and eleven-year-olds who can’t read?! Author Neil Gaiman opened his lecture to the Reading Agency with that grim statistic.

Gaiman’s point was that fiction serves as a gate-way drug to reading itself. The desire to turn the pages and learn what happens next is the force that creates literate people, who are also more empathetic people, more creative, freer, peaceful people.

Books Help Us Accumulate Wisdom

If we enter another person’s world (the special gift of memoir), we leave that world better able to understand another personality, culture, and perspective. We are changed. Memoir helps us empathize with struggles, whether or not we have experienced them ourselves. A good memoir extracts wisdom from experience. It leaves a legacy — and we are the beneficiaries! Finding a good memoir is like discovering you had a rich uncle who left you a million dollars.

Authors Save Our Lives While Saving Their Own

Yesterday I learned from author Larry M. Edward’s Facebook post that the average author earns less than $1,000 per year.

Obviously only a few authors become rich and famous.

What keeps the others writing and publishing when they don’t gain material rewards?

The best reason is that they have to write. They have taken Rilke’s test in Letters to a Young Poet
and passed it:

This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your while life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember.

Must I write? Young Poet Angela M. Carter  has selected this phrase to describe why she writes: Poetry Saved My Life.

full bookshelf

The whole creation groans with this much accumulated wisdom

When poetry, fiction, and memoir save the author’s life, they save many others. When the open the author’s imagination, they free other spirits. When they solidify the wisdom gained in one life, they add to the world’s precious store.

So do something revolutionary. Read a book. Hug an author.

No, on second thought. Hugs aren’t enough. Buy a book or at least check one out of the library. Then write a review online. You will make someone’s day.

And you will make the world a better place.

Now it’s your turn to add to the list of reasons we need books. I know I have just scratched the surface of this question.

Also, my writer friends, especially Sharon Lippincott and Carol Bodensteiner, want to know more about you as a reader? Where do you go to find books you love?

Please offer your thoughts below. I’m not the only author who wants to hear from you!

Shirley Showalter


  1. Robert Martin on January 22, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    As a budding author, I agree… please, tell us… what do you want to hear?

    As for me, first, why do I read? Fiction or non-fiction?

    Watch my blog tomorrow. 🙂

    • shirleyhs on January 22, 2014 at 2:32 pm

      How timely, Robert. I will definitely check out your post tomorrow. And you might enjoy reading that whole Neil Gaiman essay if you haven’t already.

      Your comment gives me the chance to recommend that readers here check out your project MennoNerds. The image on the right hand side of this column will take you to the website.

  2. Robert Martin on January 22, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    Wow… how serendipitous… I have my blog article already written… and there are some parallels between Neil’s essay and my article…. This could be FUN!. 🙂

  3. Melanie on January 22, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    Amen to this, Shirley. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I was talking with my sixth grade son just last night about my grandpa, who had only a sixth grade education, and started working on a farm when he was 13 or 14. We were imagining what life would have been like for him, someone who never read books because he could not. I wondered what he (and others like him) did when there was free time, and before television/internet/a million other diversions. It’s hard to imagine what one might do with free time if he cannot read.

  4. shirleyhs on January 22, 2014 at 2:56 pm

    Wow. Do you know what he did? Whittle? Play music? Even music is hard if you don’t read.

    I had the most delightful conversation with a second grader yesterday. I was on a walk in my neighborhood. My neighbor was walking with his grandson. Neighbor introduced me as the former president of Goshen College who wrote a book. The boy burst out “Blush!” He had seen the book on the table. He told me that he reads above his grade level. I told him that if he can read books, he can learn how to do anything. He seemed to like that idea.

    I told Grandpa that his grandson made my day.

    Greetings to your sixth grader!

  5. Laurie Buchanan on January 22, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    Shirley — I resonate with and absolutely love this statement:

    “Gaiman’s point was that fiction serves as a gate-way drug to reading itself. The desire to turn the pages and learn what happens next is the force that creates literate people, who are also more empathetic people, more creative, freer, peaceful people.”

    Whenever I finish a good book, I post a brief review on Goodreads. I never write about books that disappoint me. My mother always said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

    As you know, Shirley, I thoroughly enjoyed your book and shouted it from the rooftops on Goodreads:

    A fan of Neil Gaiman, I recently read “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” Here’s a link to my brief review in Goodreads:

    Inquiring minds want to know WHY we read…

    It’s my perspective that our stories — individual, collective, fiction, and nonfiction — are the grease that keeps the big wheel of time and human improvement (the evolution of humanity), moving forward in ways that are positive, uplifting, constructive, and healing.

    …and WHERE we go to find books we love:

    As evidenced by being welcomed by name, I’m often found in the stacks at our local library. I love the smell and feel of books. I love book covers, illustrations, and reading book jackets. As such, I typically check books out from our local library. However, as a dyed in the wool minimalist, I don’t own any. When I actually purchase a book, once completed, I either pass along to another avid reader, or donate it to the library.

    • shirleyhs on January 22, 2014 at 6:59 pm

      Lovely: “our stories — individual, collective, fiction, and nonfiction — are the grease that keeps the big wheel of time and human improvement (the evolution of humanity), moving forward in ways that are positive, uplifting, constructive, and healing.”

      And I admire your minimalist decision not to collect physical books. I gave away thousands of books when we moved from Michigan to Virginia three years ago. And I loved the feeling of being lighter when my shelves were stripped to the bare necessities. Part of my education in the memoir genre and investment in/support of other authors since 2011 has been to purchase books, which have now started to overflow their shelves. Your comment challenges me to give as many as I think I can spare in our local nonprofit called Book Savers. Thank you!

  6. Marian Beaman on January 22, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    I assume these are your bookshelves, Shirley, which look a lot like mine, stuffed and utilized.

    My # 4 addition to the list: Books keep me sane, help me maintain a healthy mental and emotional life, closely related to your # 3. Like Rilke’s test for writing, reading for me is a necessity.

    Sharon, Carol, and Shirley – Where do I go to find books I love? Well, two recent examples: I believe I found Kristin Kimball’s The Dirty Life, on Farming, Food, and Love advertised on the pages of the New Yorker. Right now I’m reading Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden about an artist of the 1700s who begins her life’s work at age (gulp!) 72. I’m sure I heard the title on NPR but I don’t remember which show.

    I read the book The Summer of Yes by Karen Leahy because I was a winner on Sherrey Meyer’s blog book giveaway. My teacher friend Verna publishes a Christmas letter with 3-4 non-fiction titles I usually check out. Of course, my online writer friends give me titles. Shirley, I have read some of the listings in your blog’s memoir section just because that is the genre that most interests me now.

    Like a praying mantis snapping up a tasty morsel, I’m always on the prowl for wonderful words. To summarize: my sources are magazines, public radio, friends, book review blogs, author blogs, on and on.

    I wish I could support indie bookstores more, but unfortunately, my bookshelves, like Shirley’s, are filled to the brim and over-flowing. So I usually check out availability in our library first.

    Good questions . . . great post!

    • Robert Martin on January 22, 2014 at 3:45 pm

      If you don’t have piles of books scattered around the house with no shelves for homes, you are not a book lover. To paraphrase the food critic from the movie “Ratatouie”, I don’t like books…I LOVE them… and if I don’t love them, I don’t re-read them.

    • shirleyhs on January 22, 2014 at 8:32 pm

      Marian, I’m impressed by the number of people who find books from reading magazines.

      Your comment about NPR made me think of podcasts. Do you listen to them? I might do a complete post on them sometime. NYTimes Book Review and NPR Books and Diane Rehm and Fresh Air are some of my favorites.

      Did you find Mary Karr’s Top Ten Memoir List on my website?

      You read to stay balanced mentally and emotionally. I think it’s working. 🙂 Your writing voice is a very wise one.

  7. Rebecca on January 22, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    Very good blog and Rilke is always a good one to quote.

    • shirleyhs on January 22, 2014 at 8:42 pm

      Hi Rebecca, thanks for the visit and for this lovely comment. The link from your picture to your website is broken. Were you aware of that? Here is the link to Rebecca’s website for others who find this:

      I’m enjoying explorations there.

  8. Saloma Furlong on January 22, 2014 at 9:08 pm

    Shirley, what a lovely blog post. I am going to post it on FB.

    That statistic about how they determine how many spaces they need for the future put chills up my spine. Wow.

    Then I’m also struck by the joy and pleasure in the way you describe when you read a good book. I’m right there with you.

    Because I normally have less time than my reading list requires, I tend to read what I’ve had recommended to me. One day I was sorting books with another Friend of my local library, when she highly recommended the book, “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout. It has become one of my new favorite books. It will compete with my other books for the limited space on my bookshelf.

    Sometimes what keeps me turning the pages is the literary quality of the prose — lyrical and beautiful. At other times it is the story that is being told that is carried along on words that become invisible in inaudible. Movement in the story is what matters. Still other books I read because I can personally relate to the struggle and the wisdom gleaned from the struggle. What they all have in common is that the books transport me to a different place — a place that requires imagination to carry me there.

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post, and a reminder to never take books for granted.

    • shirleyhs on January 23, 2014 at 5:33 pm

      Saloma, I like the idea of transport provided both by beautiful language and by the sweeping force of narrative.

      And the recommendation from a friend whose judgment one trusts certainly carries the most weight of all sources.

      Thanks for that word about movement. Books we love move us so many different ways, and the process of reading, even if we remain motionless on the outside, is a very active one. Your own story moves readers as they identify with your movement from one place, one culture, to another.

  9. Why do I read? | Abnormal Anabaptist on January 23, 2014 at 9:02 am

    […] Three Reasons Why We Need Books: They Make the World a Better Place | Shirley Hershey Showalter. Why did Jerry need this book? (photo credit: […]

  10. Carol Bodensteiner on January 23, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    This discussion – here and on FB – made me think more deeply about where I get my own tips on books to read. WOM is at the top, but the words come from lots of sources: bookstore sellers, librarians, friends, and my dentist. Thanks everyone for weighing in.

    • shirleyhs on January 23, 2014 at 5:52 pm

      Ha! I hadn’t thought of asking my dentist, but, come to think of it, I’ll bet she has pretty good reading taste.

      WOM seems hard to pin down, doesn’t it?

  11. Jennifer on January 23, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    Books not only saved my life as a lonely, imaginative child and teenager, and then as a mother, they have saved the life of my 16 year old son as well. When he was 14 he became severely depressed and was in the hospital with thoughts of suicide. After he came out his middle school librarian not only fed his hunger for more and more knowledge and books, giving him research projects and encouraging his poetry writing, she gave him a passion for books themselves and a vision of himself as a future librarian. It gave him a dream to work towards that brought him out of that abyss. Now in senior high, his new librarian continues that special relationship with him. Their love of books, and of teaching, has changed him.

    • shirleyhs on January 23, 2014 at 5:55 pm

      Jennifer, your story about your son brought tears to my eyes. Yes, books are life savers. But in your son’s case, they needed librarians who cared in order to find him.

      So glad they have helped him envision a larger life.

      Books can confirm the message: “It gets better.”

      Thank you for sharing this story. I hope you come back again.

  12. Sharon Lippincott on January 23, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    Shirley, thanks for posting this question about where people find the books they read. It’s beginning to look as if a shotgun aimed at the target!

    That statistic about kids who can’t read gives me shivers. One of my grandsons gets top grades, but he never reads anything not specifically assigned for school. I guess can’t read isn’t quite the same as don’t read … what can we do to compete with video games, etc.?

    One of my grandfathers was illiterate, with a spotty eighth grade education disrupted and 6cut short by family instability. Nobody knew he couldn’t read until the last few years of his life, and he made history when the New Mexico Civil Engineering Society awarded him an honorary membership for his outstanding achievements in heavy construction. What did he do when other people were reading? He smoked and drank when he wasn’t tinkering around building things! In his later years he watched t.v. Amazing that he achieved so much as an illiterate drunk whose funeral was attended by hundreds of the men who had worked for Meester Cub!

    • shirleyhs on January 23, 2014 at 6:00 pm

      Sharon, lots of interesting points here. My children were not avid readers either, although they read more when we were in Adidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and didn’t have a tv or video games.

      And the story of your grandfather — wow! Have you ever written that one? Sounds like a novel or at least a short story to me.

      Thanks for asking the question that has left all of us scratching our heads.

  13. Tina Fariss Barbour on January 23, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    I can’t even fully express what books mean to me. When I was a small child, I would carry around a small stack of books with me, dipping into first one and then another. I usually read more than one at a time. I have learned so much about myself, about other people, other cultures, other points of view from books.

    My father was not a big reader. He basically read the daily newspaper. But he wanted all three of his children to read. In his life writings, he wrote about how pleased he was that his daughter loved books.

    We’re having some work done in part of the house, and part of the prep involved packing up a bookcase stuffed with books. We packed up 13 banker’s boxes with books. The bookcase looks so lonely! Can’t wait to get the books (newly arranged) back on the shelves.

  14. Clif Hostetler on January 24, 2014 at 10:27 am

    Books are better than drugs,
    reviews are better than therapy.
    But not as real as hugs,
    together they are a life happy.

    • shirleyhs on January 24, 2014 at 10:31 am

      Love this poem, Clif!

      Hope to hug you in person soon. 🙂

  15. Richard Gilbert on January 25, 2014 at 7:11 pm

    Books, to me, allow an encounter with the best of another’s mind. Writing a book still means something, because people sense it is transformative. Thus it is a very concentrated, refined, powerful, and mysterious object, the book. It can be greater than the author is in daily life. Wisdom. Story. Poetry.

  16. shirleyhs on January 25, 2014 at 7:22 pm

    Yes to all of these statements, Richard. And, like your own essays, your comments say so much with few words. I’m taking your memoir with me to Mexico next week. Can’t wait to encounter the best of your mind there!

  17. Karen Fisher-Alaniz on January 25, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    I couldn’t have said it better myself! Books rock!

  18. Sherrey Meyer on January 26, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Shirley, excellent post! The statistic you’ve quoted early on from Neil Gaiman turned my blood cold. We have to do something about this. Books have always been my escape. They provided the friends I didn’t have nearby, the roads to places I couldn’t even imagine, the serenity of other homes unlike mine, and had it been possible, I wish they could have provided a way out of the dysfunction I grew up in. But they could only provide the escape I’ve described.

    Where do I find books I love to read? First and foremost, reading reviews. Then recommendations from friends, my favorite indie bookseller, and the library. My favorite book places.

  19. shirleyhs on January 26, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    Sherrey, thanks for the compliment on the post. Coming from you, that means a lot. You have created a wonderful gathering place for writers and readers. AND you do so many of us the favor of reviewing our books. I know that you sent some readers to me, and I’m very grateful.

    I too love to read reviews — all the way from the ones on Amazon to the NYTimes and everything in between. Alas, many newspapers and magazines are cutting back on reviews. So book bloggers like you are SO important. Thank you.

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