Reading for the Soul
I’ve been thinking a lot about the magical effect that reading or more broadly, storytelling, has on the soul, on our sense of self, on our peace of mind, on meaning in our lives. What is it about telling and listening to a story that calms you, engages you, drills down to your very core—even changes your life?
I don’t think there’s a rational answer to my questions or an irrational explanation that will satisfy. So, let me tell you a story. No, several stories—vignettes really—examples from my own encounters with penetrating tales.
What inspired me to put my butt in a chair to share these reflections with you is a recent trip to visit my kids and grandkids. They live in California, and we celebrated Thanksgiving together. My twin grandsons, Noah and Hugo, are almost seven years old. They are full of energy which translates into constant motion from the minute they wake up early in the morning ‘till their parents make them go to sleep late at night. It’s non-stop, mostly delightful, sometimes overwhelming, and definitely nuclear-powered.
One evening there at dinner, my wife and I gifted them each a new book. As I read one of their new books aloud, they were transfixed. See the photo above. They became calm, focused, curious, and seemingly transported to a make-believe world where the impossible seems possible and they can frolic with the colorful characters. How does this happen? Because it’s a story, a good story, and it speaks to them in a visceral and fun way. Lest I forget to mention it—my reading the story was as great a pleasure for me as the reader (if not more so) as it was for them listening. The act of telling and listening created a warm, electric connection between me and them—the three of us so many years and two generations apart, yet on the same page relishing an unexpected adventure together.
You’ll notice some loose connection between these vignettes, like a stream of consciousness that finds a thread leading from one thought to another. So, reading to the grandkids reminds me of the pleasure of reading bedtime stories to my own children every night for many years. Sure, we read the typical children’s books—Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are were favorites, but as they got a little older, I took a risk and tried to stretch their imaginations. Maybe it was because I was a classics major or because I was so enamored of ancient tales that I began reading Homer’s Odyssey to my then eight-year-old son. I wondered if the archaic language or the adult challenges or the poetic descriptions of sea battles or lost loves would put him off. But they didn’t. He only wanted more. Every night for a year, we read a few pages until he fell asleep. I can only imagine that he dreamed of Sirens bellowing or the Cyclops emerging from his cave or sailing the wild Mediterranean.
I know that our shared odyssey had a deep impact on him, maybe even inspired him to become a poet and a writer. I knew it stuck with him when I saw a line from the Odyssey appear in one of his poems: emos d’erigeneia phane rhododaktulos eos: “But when early-born rosy-fingered Dawn appeared…” That line is repeated at least twenty times word-for-word in the Odyssey. It’s mesmerizing. Still, as in the real world dawn appears every day. It’s just not always rosy-fingered. Yet, it always harkens the beginning of a new adventure with unexpected twists and turns.
In my professional life and before becoming a writer, I learned the power of story as an effective communication tool. As part of my consulting business, I taught seminars around the country and courses at Fairleigh Dickinson University. I found one key to successful public speaking is to always be watching your audience—are they leaning forward and making eye contact or are they leaning back and yawning? Whenever I felt I might lose their attention, one trick always worked. I would say, “Let me tell you a story…” It was like casting a spell. You could see it in their body language. They sat up and perked up. Telling a story always seemed to be the best way to connect, to deliver my message, to get a response. As Aaron Sorkin said, “The most powerful delivery system ever invented for an idea is a story.”
For those of you who are in sales, as I was for many years, you know telling stories about your product or service and how a specific customer used and benefitted from it, often gets the sale. Likewise, when my consulting business morphed into developing websites for companies, I always encouraged clients to tell their personal business origin story. I mean how dull are the usual website About Us pages? When I encouraged one client who started a successful physical therapy practice (she fixed my back!) to talk about how she worked at the World Trade Center on 9/11. That surviving the trauma of that day caused her to reassess her life and do what she really wanted. Her story on her new About Us page resonated with potential patients who came to her after reading it.
But I think the power of stories goes far beyond the tricks of communication. It can trigger the imagination and take you out of and beyond yourself. We humans crave that transformative experience. I am reminded of a stanza from a favorite Robert Penn Warren poem:
“Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.”
Tell me a story of deep delight… but can books and stories really change your life? Of the many people to whom I have asked that question, there is always an answer and a story behind it. I’ll share a few of my very different life-changing story encounters. First understand, I was not a great reader as a kid. I got my story fix from endless hours of watching television. I read only the minimum required at school. All of that changed when I read my first book for pleasure. Roaming the stacks of my local bookstore, I picked up a copy of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming. It engaged and transported me in a way no TV show had ever done. It made me want to read more. And although I am a slow reader to this day, I am a voracious one.
Sidebar. About slow reading. After graduating college, I was accepted to Boston College Law School. I knew that my turtle-like reading speed would never cut it with those thick, boring lawbooks. I signed up for an Evelyn Wood Speed Reading course in Boston the summer before law school began. I learned Wood’s techniques. I learned the reason I read slowly is that I was sub-vocalizing as I read. That means even though I wasn’t reading aloud, the back of my throat was moving along with the words, slowing my pace. To speed up, I would have to unlearn that habit.
However, there were two problems with Evelyn Wood that I only understood after several classes and hundreds of dollars later. First, you can’t speed read technical textbooks, like law books, where the devil is in the details. When my Constitutional Law Professor points to me and says, “Mr. Levin, what was Plessy’s lawyers’ argument in Plessy v. Ferguson?” You can’t get away with having skimmed over the text or just read the Cliff Notes version to avoid fumbling the answer and suffering the ensuing embarrassment.
So, it appears that Evelyn Wood was intended for reading novels quickly. But where’s the fun in that? After the last class, I asked the instructor if he personally uses the speed reading technique he just spent weeks teaching me. His response was, “Oh no, not for pleasure.” Expensive lesson learned.
I prefer the approach of a self-taught Southern man who had amassed an impressive home library when he said, “I likes to ponder when I read.” That’s for me.
But I digress, although not entirely, as slow reading plays into the second book that changed my life. In college, I took a class where we studied only one book for the entire year. I mentioned I studied classics. By accident, I got hooked on and learned to read ancient Greek—how that happened is a story for another time. Anyway, the text we read for the entire year was Plato’s Republic. We read it in the original Ancient Greek. My brilliant Yoda-like professor, Al Geier, had us analyze every single word. Wait, that’s an exaggeration—still, hyperbole is acceptable, even expected in storytelling. In truth, we did spend entire sessions debating and wrangling the many meanings of profound, untranslatable Greek words like logos.
That yearlong in-depth reading of one of the great works in western civilization launched my thinking to a new and deeper level. To find pleasure and delight in the details and in single words has stood me well to this day as I search for le mot juste in writing my latest novel.
Another example is from later in life. I was in my 50s and battling one of my periodic bouts of melancholy. So, I resort to one of my go-to calming activities—wandering the bookshelves at Barnes & Noble. Randomness and serendipity have been the key to the pleasures I derive from those bookstore forays over the years. Don’t get me wrong. Buying books online is fine—it pays my bills but wandering the stacks of a library or a bookstore can’t be beat for the joy of discovering something new and unexpected–even life-changing. In my case, the book I stumbled on was Positively Fifth Street by James McManus. It was a combination of a murder mystery, a history of poker, and a personal journey. McManus, a professor of literature at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, started out to write a story for Harper’s magazine about the murder of a casino owner in Las Vegas. But like all marvelous adventures in life, it started out one way and ended up in a completely different way. While he was in Vegas doing his research, on a whim he entered the World Series of Poker as an amateur and achieved miraculous success–making it to the final table and earning more than two-years teaching salary in two weeks. He documented his rollercoaster experience and the murder case in one gripping story.
Reading McManus fanned the embers of my long-ago interest in poker. I was so inspired that I resolved to study the game and play again, seriously this time. Online poker was just emerging as a thing, and I could practice from home. Subsequently, I read over seventy books on poker strategy. I practiced and then ventured to my first live tournament in Atlantic City. Since then, I have won several tournaments around the country and played five times in the World Series of Poker with some success. Focusing on poker broke the spell of my funky mental state. It gave me both a goal and a mental challenge that appealed to my love of problem solving and competition. McManus’ story changed my life.
My last vignette speaks to a chain of chance occurrences that led to my writing five books and sharing these stories with you today. In my former careers, I traveled often for business. Before boarding the plane, I would stop at the airports’ book kiosks. Scanning the shelves for a new book to read on the plane, I preferred discovering someone new–an author whose work I had not read before. On one trip, I stopped at the Newark Airport’s Hudson News. The back cover blurb of a paperback caught my eye. The book was Burnt Sienna, a spy thriller by David Morrell. I inhaled it in one long flight. When I find a brilliant book by a new-to-me author, I’ll read everything she or he wrote. So of course, I went on to read over twenty of Morrell’s books.
But how did that lead to my becoming a writer? Bear with me. I have a good friend, Steve Bennett, whose company, Authorbytes, specializes in building websites and book marketing for authors. He mentioned that he had just gotten off the phone with David Morrell. “What? You know him? I would love to have a conversation with him. He’s one of my favorite authors,” I said.
A Chance Call
Steve, being a great friend, arranged the call. David couldn’t have been more gracious. It was clear from my recounting my pleasure reading his books that I was a super-fan. And as an author myself now, I can tell you we love our superfans. He agreed to sign some books for me and just before ending the call, mentioned he co-founded an annual conference for lovers of thrillers—both readers and authors. It’s called Thrillerfest and it takes place in New York City every year.
On a whim, I signed up and went. There, I listened to bestselling authors each describe both their process and their writing journey. They inspired me and modeled how I too could become an author. They made me think, I can do this. I had an idea for my first thriller, NOT SO DEAD and gave it a try. Like my other pursuits, I read, I studied, and after several fits and starts over several years, I finished Book 1. I did it. I could do it and I loved the entire process. Books 2, 3, 4 and 5 came more quickly. I’m now working on the sequel to my last one, STILL NOT DEAD as we speak. All from picking up a book at the airport and a lucky conversation that indeed changed my life.
So now I write books and better said, I tell stories in written words. My goal is to entertain first and then embed some meaningful ideas within those words. When I read fiction, I want to enjoy the story first, but it means more to me if I can learn something along the way. How about you?
What books have changed your life? Tell us your story in the Comments below.
Happy holidays… Charlie
Postscript. And the circle turns. I got to thank James McManus and David Morell personally for the impact their writing had on me. And now with Authorbytes and my publisher, the Munn Avenue Press, I work with both budding and accomplished authors to publish and market their books. Check out these knockout reads that I helped bring to life in 2021: Third and Long by Bob Katz; Against the Glass by Linda M. Habib; and Gallery Confidential by Steven Maier. If you have a story to tell and would like some help getting it published, feel free to contact me.
Other Titles by Charles Levin:
NOT SO DEAD Series, Books 1 -4 – Kindle/eBook, Paperback, Hardcover, and Audiobooks
NOT SO DEAD Trilogy – Kindle/ebook and Kindle Unlimited – Boxset of all 3 Sam Sunborn Novels.
New! NOT SO DEAD Trilogy Audiobook–the first 3 Books of the NOT SO DEAD Series–27+ Hours–5 Amazon Stars
New! The Last Appointment: 30 Collected Short Stories–mysteries, thrillers, suspense stories, personal reflections,
strange twists, rants, love, death, dreams, and memories
Read for FREE some of Charles Levin’s short stories: