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Good books can be mirrors and windows

Have you ever experienced that wonderful moment of recognition while reading? I love it when I read something that I feel but have not been able to express adequately, when I get that moment of connection, identifying with someone else’s story.

I also love to read books that show life from a totally different aspect. Stories from other lands, cultures, periods of time, races or genders. These narratives allow me the opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes for a short while, to imagine what life might be like had I been born into a different time or place.

In our library, we refer to these ideas as “mirrors” or “windows.” Stories that reflect us, or stories that allow us a glimpse into an alternative way of being in the world.

As someone who moved to America from England as an adult, I am often drawn to stories of people who travel to other lands, either through necessity or choice. For example, “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie allowed me a mix of responses. I related to the main character’s experience of moving to the USA as a foreigner, and I also gained a totally different viewpoint through the lens of a Black Nigerian.

When helping my sons choose books, I looked for tales they could relate to. My son loved the Hatchet series by Gary Paulsen and often referred to them when we were camping at Vallecito! However, I also believed it was important to find books that would help him imagine life from a different frame of reference also. He enjoyed Manga immensely and developed a fascination with Japan. He was captivated by “The Power of One” by Courtenay Bryce and that led to interesting conversations about race and South African history. I wanted my children to learn empathy for other people, and I could think of no better way to do that than through a good book.

Some people may wonder why the library’s shelves don’t simply reflect the dominant culture, choices and lifestyle that we enjoy here. My opinion is that, although most of our collection does just that, we also want to reflect a variety of experiences from the big, beautiful and complicated world we inhabit. I value the fact that books can expose us to alternative viewpoints, experiences and cultures. In this way, we can choose who we want to be, and how we want to interact with our neighbors near and far.

Brenda Marshall is director of Pine River Library.