The Gifts of Winter

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” (Dr. Seuss)

Attribution: Donna CameronWhile much of the country suffered through the bitterest winter ever, we in the Seattle area watched wide-eyed, sympathetic, and thankful for our own temperate winter. By our household’s unscientific analysis—the frequency of having to thaw the water in the birdbath or replace frozen hummingbird water—it was a mild winter, indeed.

But early February brought us both humility and snow—lots of snow. More snow than most of us have ever seen in these parts. For an area as hilly as this, even an inch or two of snow can wreak havoc. And when it’s 18-24 inches, with brief thaws that then refreeze to create sheer ice slides, all but the most essential services come to a standstill. Kids have missed a week or more of school. To compound the problem, the fact that snow is such a rarity means we have limited snow removal equipment and it concentrates on the main roads and arterials, leaving the side streets and remoter areas to fend for themselves.

Stories of kindness abound in these conditions. Neighbor helping neighbor . . . strangers offering assistance . . . shelters for people and their pets . . . sharing, caring, and patience—lots of patience. It’s a gift to be reminded that we’re here for one another and that when there’s a need, most of us respond without asking who did you vote for or what side are you on?

Another gift of this weather-enforced house arrest has been extended time to read, reminding me that I really don’t need two feet of snow to grant me permission to spend a whole afternoon reading. Reading is part of my job as a writer, plus, it’s the reward I’ve earned for decades of high-intensity work.

And if I require any additional approval to spend hours with my nose buried in a book (I don’t), I need only look at some recent research showing the benefits of reading—one of them being increased empathy and kindness.

A meta-analysis, led by University of Rochester psychologist David Dodell-Feder, PhD, looked at 14 previous studies on the effect of reading fiction on a person’s empathy. It concluded that there is a “small, statistically significant improvement in social-cognitive performance” among those who read fiction, compared to people who read mainly non-fiction or who don’t read at all.

Reporting on the study in Psychology Today, Dr. Art Markman, of the University of Texas, concurs that the benefits of reading include “being able to experience things within a work of fiction that you might not have a chance to experience in real life. In addition, by showing you the world through the eyes of other people, literature can give you a window into others’ thoughts or feelings.”

Further, he contends that people who read a lot of fiction are likely over time to develop habits of empathy and consideration. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it’s encouraging to see it validated.

Are there books that you knew when you read them had somehow changed your life and taught you to view the world through new eyes? I think of Charlotte’s Web, Black Beauty, The Velveteen Rabbit, Jane Eyre, Les Misérables, Crime and Punishment, Cancer Ward, The Age of Innocence . . . and countless others. They’re all books that prompted me to ask—numerous times—how would I feel in this character’s position, how would I act, what would I say? And when I reread them, I ask the same questions, often with different answers.

Other recent studies have demonstrated the value of parents reading aloud to children—even beyond the age when the children can read themselves.

When parents read aloud to their child every day:

  • The child hears a broader variety of words and expands his or her vocabulary, thus enabling them to understand more when they start school.
  • The child’s brain grows—literally—it expands and more neurons connect.
  • The child is more likely to become a lifelong reader—one of the keys to eventual success.
  • It increases the child’s ability to pay attention and concentrate—skills that will help them throughout life. It even improves behavior and reduces aggressive tendencies.
  • It creates a physical and emotional bond between parent and child.
  • It increases the child’s capacity for empathy and compassion. They learn to put themselves in another’s shoes and think about what other people may be feeling.

I don’t actually remember my parents reading to me, but I seem to have few early childhood memories. I assume they must have. Both were voracious readers and our home was filled with books. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read, and books were always my favorite gifts for any occasion.

As the snow melts and this fierce winter turns to mild spring, I plan to hold on ever more tightly to the gift of reading. Call it relaxation or escape, call it kindness therapy, call it a path to greater happiness. Whatever . . . answer the call.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” (James Baldwin)

31 thoughts on “The Gifts of Winter

  1. Your remarks on the benefits of reading to our children, especially increased empathy, really resonates with me. I remember reading my son a book that I thought was outrageously funny: Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day. Even before we were halfway through, my son was in tears. I asked why he was crying, and he told me that “this is a very bad day for Alexander. Why is the writer making fun of him?” What I thought of as a comedy was something my son believed deserved our sympathy. Laughing at Alexander’s misfortune was cruel. I learned something that day. First, that my son was empathetic in the extreme, and second, comedy often stems from pain. I need to be cognizant of that, and reserve my laughter for those who set out deliberately to be funny. While Judith Viorst, Alexander’s creator, set out to be funny, her character certainly did not. And that’s what my son saw, and he wept for Alexander’s bad day.

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    • Thanks for sharing that, Kathi. That’s quite an insight, and tremendous empathy demonstrated by your son. I’ve always loved Judith Viorst’s humor, but I’ve never read that book (not having kids, I’ve missed a lot of good children’s books). It’s so true that the best humor is when we laugh with someone and not at them.

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  2. I enjoyed learning the benefits of fiction reading, Donna…as a fiction writer, I found it rewarding. I didn’t realize Seattle received a winter onslaught. I’ve been there at Christmas in inclement weather, and witnessed for myself the paralysis of a little snow. The hills are treacherous! Stay warm, stay safe, and keep reading. Great post, thank you.

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  3. I remember my parents reading to me. Even as a really wee one it was my favourite activity. I was constantly bringing my books to them, even before I could speak. And I’ve had my nose buried in books ever since.

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  4. All my memories of being read to are of my Grandma. She would even call me on the phone and read the comics to me, as I followed along frame by frame. I think I need to send my newest great-granddaughter a book for the parents to read.

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  5. My grandmother introduced me at an early age to stories and poetry (I still have the copy she gave me of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verse”.) When I was eight, the summer of my parents’ acrimonious divorce, I spent every afternoon within the cool, calm walls of our town library. That summer I found inspiration in biographies: Clara Barton, Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt; and I inhabited the wondrous fictional worlds of “The Secret Garden”, “A Wrinkle in Time”, “Island of the Blue Dolphin”, “When the Clock Struck Thirteen”, and “The Phantom Tollbooth”.

    I started reading aloud to my son when he was just a few months old. When he was nine, he particularly loved the Tolkien books. As soon as we’d reach the end of “The Return of the King”, he would be ready to begin again with “The Hobbit.” Though we’d read all four books from cover to cover multiple times and we both knew the stories by heart, every time we’d get to the death of a dear character or a sad departure, both of us would have to pause, choke back sobs and dry our tears before reading on. Every time. Not only did he learn to read and comprehend language several grades above his age group, he developed an emotional intelligence and empathy beyond the experience of his own young life. What a joy to witness and to share.

    Stay warm & cozy between the pages, my friend!

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    • What beautiful memories, Kris! You did remind me of one I treasure: on Saturday mornings, my dad would take me to the local library where I would take out several books to last the week. Like you, I sought biographies of strong women: Clara Barton, Nelly Bly, Harriet Tubman, Florence Nightingale. I like to think he was preparing me to be a strong woman, perhaps knowing he wouldn’t be there to see it. Hope you are warm and cozy (and home from the heartland).

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  6. Reading – a gift indeed. Each Christmas, I send my great-niece and nephew in Scotland books, for them to read or for their parents to read to them. At least, I hope that is what’s happening! Occasionally I get to read to them myself, and never fail to be astonished at the attention, curiosity and empathy that children bring to their listening. In recent years I read stories to adults at my local library, and felt a similar, if more muted, emotional response. Everyone seemed to enjoy the experience of being read to, relaxing, I believe, into an open, childlike receptivity that makes learning and empathising happen. And Donna, I give you permission to keeping reading all afternoon even when the days are warmer.

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    • Thank you, Carol! If I’m ever wavering between reading and vacuuming (not likely to happen), I will remember your permission and allow reading to prevail. Being read to is a very comforting pastime, as is being the reader. I think the quality of children’s books today is stellar . . . maybe I can rent a kid to read to?

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  7. Reading was always a big deal in our house as I was growing up, and it remains a big deal to me today. As I walked out of our local library the other day, clutching a pile of books, I did a little happy dance of gratitude. Your mention of frozen hummingbird water reminded me of a photo my sister-in-law posted of her hummingbird feeder just outside her window in Seattle. She strung up some outdoor incandescent lights around it to provide much-needed warmth to the hummers and they spend a lot of time warming themselves as they feed.

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  8. This was a beautiful post. Such understated power in books. I may have said before, to my shame, I’m not a big fiction reader, more short fiction, non-fiction and news. As a child, I don’t remember my parents reading to me, but I read A LOT and thankfully encouraged in my reading at school. It was instrumental to my writing. The benefits of parents reading to children sounds like a no-brainer. I only hope all parents have the opportunity to learn this.

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    • I hope so, too. Thanks to libraries, the ability to have books in our homes doesn’t need to be an economic decision, so every parent can expose their children to books. I’d love to see these adult studies go further and include non-fiction like memoir and biographies. I would think they would be just as conducive to growing our compassion and empathy. Thanks for commenting!

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  9. I will never understand why someone would willingly choose not to read. I spend many hours each day with my nose in a book(s). I read more non-fiction than fiction, although I do enjoy reading classic fiction more than contemporary. The Velveteen Rabbit is a lifelong favorite. Enjoy your snow days when you get them. I love days where everything seems to stop and the world gets still.

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  10. I’ll never understand it either, Cheryl. Ah, the worlds we’ve traveled to through books, the people we’ve met, the ideas we’ve encountered. My life is so rich because of books. We’ve had a break from the snow, though there’s still plenty on the ground. They say we may get a bit more in the coming week. I’m ok with that. Thanks for your comment.

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  11. The reading-empathy connection makes sense to me. As a writer, I hope to do for others what so many writers have done for me, to help me more fully understand and empathize with those whose lives are very different from mine, and yet the same.

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  12. Oh my, such a beautiful post!!! I LOVE to read and can’t imagine life with out this gift. I also make it a point to read to my third grade class every afternoon before the dismissal bell. It always amazes me when they applaud at the end of the story! Charlotte’s Web, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, The Land of Stories and The Secret Garden are always favorites and I love them so much! So many life lessons are found in children’s literature.

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    • What a lovely tradition you are engaged in with your third graders! I imagine that some of them go home and reach for a book to continue the pleasure. That’s something they will likely remember all their lives. Thank you for your comment and for joining this community!

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    • Thank you so much for your comment. It’s good to “meet” you. I love learning that teachers are reading to their students before the closing bell. What a great way to send them back out into the world!

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