Why Reading Makes You Self-Confident

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library1 Why Reading Makes You Self ConfidentOne of the luckiest things that ever happened to me was being born into a family that elevated reading to a religious activity. The weekly trip to the library was a form of Sabbath observance in our house. Then there was the yearly pilgrimage to London, which we visited with an empty suitcase reserved for gorgeously written children’s books unavailable in the U.S. I remember the names of the bookstores we loved:  Hatchards, Foyles, Blackwells — they were like temples to us.

This was great luck for the obvious reasons: reading is fun, reading is illuminating. Reading fiction even makes people more empathic, according to research I wrote about here.

But lately I’ve been thinking that there’s another reason I was blessed to land in a family of book-lovers: self-esteem. Many writers of children’s books are introverts, or sensitive, or both — and so are their protagonists.  My children’s books were filled with quiet, intellectual types, and they were usually endowed with magical, artistic, or observatory powers.

A classic example is A Wrinkle in Time, whose protagonist Meg Murray is self-conscious, cerebral, and amazed by her younger brothers’ easy popularity. Children naturally esteem central characters, so I was in the fortunate position of respecting someone who was very much like me. But it wasn’t like I thought: here is an admirable fictional person who, like me, is out of the mainstream. Characters like Meg were the mainstream in my books, so I assumed I was too. It took me years to understand that this was incorrect, and by then it was too late — my self-esteem was (more or less) in place.

Books, especially children’s books, are one of the few media to portray introverts as intellectually and emotionally aflame, as opposed to aloof, flawed, or dull. This is especially important for children, who seem to read only for plot but are actually forming their view of the world — and of their places in it.

I think this is true of grown-up books too, even non-fiction. Books require readers to be slow and contemplative as opposed to fast and active. They are not for the frenetic of heart. The same goes for writers — plenty of my author friends are extroverts, but many more are not, and even the extroverts have to slow down and think carefully if they want to generate 100,ooo+ coherent words.

What do you think of this theory?  I wonder if gaming plays this role for some kids today. Also curious which books meant a lot to you as children and who their protagonists were.

 

 


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  1. Robin Schulberg on 27.06.2011 at 21:36 (Reply)

    From a serious introvert: I loved the Black Stallion series by Walter Farley, I guess because it was about the relationship between a boy and his horse. I’m originally from NYC but now, an always single woman at age 61, I live on a 6+ acre farm north of New Orleans with two horses, two miniature donkeys, seven dogs I rescued from the road, and a cat. Wouldn’t give it up for anything, including a relationship. Love to hear those donkeys bray when I pull into the driveway. Just started reading your blog after NY Times Magazine article.

    1. wendy on 18.02.2012 at 23:59 (Reply)

      Just read your comment. Am also from nyc and have a mini donkey…soon to be in nola.
      Would like to hear if your mini donkey. Thanks

  2. Cris Cohen on 28.06.2011 at 07:23 (Reply)

    I love the Sherlock Holmes stories. In support of your post, I would definitely describe the main character as bright, creative, confident and . . . an introvert.

  3. TAN Yian Suan on 28.06.2011 at 08:03 (Reply)

    I enjoyed reading Sherlock Holmes growing up; and boy is he a silent, contemplative character, speaking only when required. And, as pointed out, very much an introvert. :-)

  4. Luna on 28.06.2011 at 11:20 (Reply)

    Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, Anne of Green Gables series, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and absolutely Sherlock Holmes. I’m not sure how those fit into my introverted personality Sherlock Holmes of course but Bilbo? Frodo? Perhaps, ultimately they both end up alone on their journey or with one companion to assist them. Harriet I get but Anne I’m unsure of. I have some ideas but she was a fairly extroverted creature. Also I have read Lucy Maude Montgomery’s journals and she was an extrovert who really needed a great deal of interaction with others to remain balanced. It is interesting though that it took me years to accept my introverted personality and accept it. It has taken me twice as long to stop feeling guilty about not enjoying house guests for longer than a two or three day stay because some family members have treated me like I am just not being a good team player. Well we are who we are and can only change what we want to change. Thanks for helping me see I don’t want to change being introverted!

  5. Poppy on 28.06.2011 at 12:04 (Reply)

    The Oz series was one of my favorites as a child – I used to make my friends act out scenes from the books with me. I was never all that fond of Dorothy – I liked Queen Ozma. She was royalty, she was quiet, she was calm and serene – and she got to be a Queen instead of just a Princess.

    I also read a lot of Nancy Drew, whom I wouldn’t characterize as an introvert, as well as the Hobbit and LotR. I also read Shakespeare – my mother and I would read it aloud together, each of us reading half of the parts. Loved Midsummer Night’s Dream and Merchant of Venice.

    I had a Wrinkle in Time, but didn’t enjoy it as much as I do now. Ditto Harriet the Spy, although I loved Harriet’s philosophy on questions. Enjoyed Anne of Green Gables in the beginning, but the sweet country simplicity turned too sappy to enjoy the rest.

    I can’t say that my fictional heroines were introverts, but it was important to me that they be female. I did, however, grow up in a very bookish family – we always read at dinner, and local restaurants learned to identify us as the “book family” – where introversion and creativity were acceptable. My father worried a bit in my teenage years that I wasn’t social enough, but never tried to push me into “getting out more”.

  6. Patricia on 28.06.2011 at 12:58 (Reply)

    My favorite books when I was a child were Pippy Longstocking, I liked that she wasn’t “pretty” and her knee socks fell down, Cinnabar the One O’Clock Fox, Alice in Wonderland, Little Women and the Bobbsey Twins. I also read books that were my aunt’s when she was a child in the thirties,The Tabitha series and the Peace Greenfield series both by Ruth Alberta Brown.

  7. Amanda on 28.06.2011 at 13:03 (Reply)

    I didn’t grow up in a bookish family. My dad doesn’t read at all and my mom reads only occasionally. However, I grew up in a home that didn’t have a TV for the first 10 years of my life, for which I am now extremely grateful. Books *were* my TV when I was a kid and I *loved* our frequent trips to the library.

    I tend to read mostly non-fiction; however, the little fiction I do read tends to be filled with introverted characters: Harry Potter is very introverted (along with Dumbledore, Luna, and various other characters in the series), Frodo and others in LOTR, etc.

  8. Lil GLuckstern on 28.06.2011 at 13:11 (Reply)

    I believe that books were, and still are, my haven, my education, my way of discovering new ideas and places to see. I travel through my books. The advent of interactive blogs has put me in touch with authors who enrich and inform my life. I also think every child should be born with books in their library. That being said, I work with children, and I have found that their imaginations, their dexterity, their ability to think are all enhanced by video games. Sometimes, it transfers into their self esteem so that they feel that they can excel at something. That radiates outward to their school work, and informs (in older children) their choice of career. It seems that the word balance comes up often in these blogs. It would nice if that were the norm in our culture.

    1. Susan Cain on 28.06.2011 at 13:59 (Reply)

      Very interesting, Lil. Which video games do you recommend? Right now we spend a lot of time watching trucks rumble down the road on youtube…

      1. Selim on 06.07.2011 at 07:26 (Reply)

        This might be very late, but I’d look at old story driven games like Zelda – Ocarina of Time, Banjo Kazooie, Silver etc. Also maybe RTS games with strong plots such as the Warcraft series. I used to read a lot and play games as a snotty little introvert…

        On a side note – I’m just discovering your writing and would like to thank you for all your work. Itis been enlightening and even relieving in a way to read all this. Maybe I’m not from a culture that’s open to intraversion all that much.

  9. Lil GLuckstern on 28.06.2011 at 15:43 (Reply)

    I am not up to date on the latest games, but I found that games that seem to include an arcade section, and some kind of a treasure hunt, seem to do best. Hand eye stuff, and some thinking. It’s been a while, but we still talk about games like The Yukon Trail. The older ones loved the Nazi hunter games. I don’t know what’s available now; my computer is old. But there is always the World of Warcraft for the really mature ones. That one is tricky, though, due to adult participation. I still believe that things that excite the imagination and provide opportunities for creativity are helpful for self esteem and pleasure. (Books are still the best, with all kinds of adventure available these days.)

  10. Kelly on 28.06.2011 at 18:40 (Reply)

    I’ve been an avid reader as long as I can remember and have always been quiet and reserved as well. I don’t think it really lifted my self esteem though but books have without a doubt always been my safe haven. I am a die-hard Harry Potter fan and one character in particular from the series, Neville Longbottom, has always stuck in my mind as a character I relate too. He’s a very clumsy, awkward, forgetful boy who was always one step behind his friends. Even though I can relate to characters in books I don’t think they’ve ever improved my self esteem because I could already see what people had in mind as an acceptable (outgoing, bubbly, etc.) which is why I’ve always turned to books to begin with to escape.

  11. Julia on 29.06.2011 at 15:40 (Reply)

    I always loved Louisa May Alcott, especially “Little Women,” and “An Old Fashioned Girl.” The main character in LW is not exactly an introvert, but had some similar qualities. She was comfortable around people she knew, was awkward and uncomfortable in crowds, and she took time to read and write. Most envy-producing to me was the way her family accepted and supported her need to be alone and read/write when she needed to!

  12. Melanie on 01.07.2011 at 10:02 (Reply)

    I grew up as an avid reader, finishing at least a book a week from first grade on. And I completely understand the reverence you have for a trip to the library – I spent hours there, both as a young student when my mom took me, through present day.

    My favorite books from my youth: “The Blue Sword,” “The Hero and the Crown,” “The Outlaws of Sherwood,” “The Door in the Hedge,” and “Beauty,” all by Robin McKinley, The Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper, the Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery, the Wrinkle in Time series by Madeleine L’Engle, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, the Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey, and so many more I can’t recall right now. (Yes, I still re-read them as an adult, and my preferred genres haven’t changed much over the years!)

    I have a mother who is not a reader, but encouraged my love of reading (while still nagging me to get outside and PLAY!). My father is a reader who doesn’t have or make much time to read. My younger sister only reads when she has to. I feel lucky that both of my parents instilled a conscientiousness in me as a child, although it may have been enhanced by the books that I read.

    I have always preferred reading or discussing a good book with a close friend to being out in public. Most of my closest friends as an adult are also introverts, and love reading as much as I do – we frequently share our new favorite authors/addictions with each, and share our books with other! It’s nice to find someone online who is championing a different view of introverts!

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