Our Reading Lives: Why Reading Matters to Contribution

By Nikcole Wiles, [truncated excerpts from a full, unpublished essay written for my university senior seminar].

In 1995, a few hours after arriving home, waving a small certificate with wild abandon above my head before jumping into my father’s arms, my family opened the door of our local Pizza Hut, the aroma of marinara and garlic hitting me in a burst of warm air. Before leaving, my mother affixed a purple BOOK IT! button to my burly jacket. As we sat in the booth, a smiling waitress congratulated me and handed me a sticker with children holding pizzas that had candles aflame on top—she already knew why I was there. Being a shy kid, I did not shout out “I have earned a free personal pan pizza,” but I know my smile shouted it for me, making up for my social anxiety. A teacher at my school had set a monthly reading goal for me based on how many books she thought I could read. I had met that goal, and I was ready to reap the pepperoni pizza-flavored rewards. My parents beamed as I asked for my personal pan pizza, “Pepperoni only please.” They had already congratulated me at home, giving me hugs and a thumbs up for another month of successful reading. During just this one experience, a teacher, my parents, a waitress, and a corporation all contributed to me in several ways. This is one of the many reasons I have come to the conclusion that reading matters—it inspires contribution. In 1998, I stood in front of a beautiful brick and glass block building called Gildersleeve Middle School for the first time in my life. My family had just moved from dusty, thirsty Texas to the leaf-cluttered, color-filled streets of Virginia. My parents told me I’d find an unmatched education at Gildersleeve. What I discovered instead was the second-floor library, where thousands of books stood waiting for me to devour them. There was a clever librarian watching as I meandered down the aisles touching the spines of the books with light fingertips. She saw a budding teenager just exhilarated by being near the books, and could only imagine what would happen if she encouraged this teenager to read the books. She came over to me and opened the doors by saying, “Let’s get you a library card, dear. All you need is your student ID. And I want to tell you about our accelerated reading program.” I became immersed in the accelerated reading program, along with the competition Gildersleeve Middle School designed around it. In fact, I remember how miffed I was to find that I only managed to snag second place in the 7th grade category. Outrage! I still view it as a personal robbery. The takeaway is this: The librarian contributed to my reading life in a direct way, introducing a program that encouraged me to read more books than I had ever read before. I have no doubt her own love of reading inspired her to reach out to me in that middle school library that day. Reading mattered to her and it inspired her to pass on her contribution to me. Reading matters because it inspires that sort of contribution all throughout the United States. In 2013, I discovered the most terrible and most amazing website of all time. It at once ruined and contributed to my life. Discovering a site such as Paperback Swap has contributed massively to my reading life, but it is hard not to visit the website and request ten new books each day. Paperback Swap’s directive is simple. Richard Pickering describes the site in this way: “Conceived by a consummate reader in an effort to utilize discarded books, PaperBackSwap.com has developed a web site where members from all over the United States can trade books for free.” To date, I have mailed sixty-eight books to other members on the Paperback Swap website. I have received fifty-five books from those members in return. I have over 100 titles on my automatic wish list waiting for acceptance, and the moment another member posts those books to the website, the site holds them for me. I currently have twenty-three books posted myself, and should a member request one of those books, I will shuffle over to the local post office and mail the book out for him or her. Paperback Swap estimates that I have saved $99.55 by swapping books on their site versus purchasing the books new. By having access to Paperback Swap, I have added fifty-five books to my personal library in two years. This is an amazing site for the average reader. However, Paperback Swap gives back too. Pickering also gives us some information on how my mere presence on the site manages to extend into contribution. Paperback is contributing books as well, says Pickering: “This Thanksgiving season, the largest Book Club in America, PaperBackSwap.com, is once again donating over 25,000 books to deserving elementary schools across the United States. This gift includes…books…given to the students so that they have books to call their own.” The contribution is there, once again, even when you least expect it. In 2015, I fiddled with my Amazon Smile settings for about ten minutes before stumbling into a personal field of contribution. I was trying to make a simple change. Instead of a few cents from each purchase I make going to the Big Cat Rescue, I wanted my few cents to begin going to an organization called Paperback Swap. As a service designed to contribute to non-profit organizations based on purchases you’re going to make anyway, Amazon Smile has been donating a little bit of cash to the Big Cat Rescue on my behalf for almost a year. As much as I love animals, especially felines, I decided that books had a far greater reach of impact in my life, and the Paperback Swap organization had been serving me as a reader for a couple years. As far as I am concerned, they earned a few cents from each of my Amazon purchases. In trying to find Paperback Swap in the list on Amazon Smile, I happened on an organization called Operation Paperback. One wrong click threw me into a program that inspired me to contribute in new and awesome ways. Operation Paperback connects with my personal life on a reading level, a military level and a contribution level. I am the product of a military family myself and I am proud of all the years my dad served in the United States Navy. It may seem like being a part of a military family doesn’t connect to reading at all, but it does. If I did not have constant access to books, those glorious escapist windows into other worlds, I do not know how I could have coped with my dad being overseas for three months to twelve months each stretch. Here is what Operation Paperback does, according to their website: “Operation Paperback is a non-profit organization…that collects gently used books nationwide and sends them to American troops overseas, as well as veterans and military families here at home.” I was immediately driven to get involved in this program. After all, it is a program involved in two of the aspects of my life that are quite close to my heart, reading and the military. When I gathered some books and visited the site to request my first address for shipment, I chose to send my books to a military family instead of sending them to a troop overseas. Part of my reason for doing it this way is because of what I mentioned earlier; there is a military child out there right now who needs a book to help get him or her through the next unknown number of months until her dad or mom returns from overseas. When I received the address for my military family, it included a note that mentioned the family needed books for an eight year-old and nine year-old boy. It also told me what type of books those boys enjoy, and I made sure to include as many as I had in that genre. Operation Paperback is contributing to the reading lives of others across the world, and my own reading life inspired me to get involved as well. Contribution seems to beget contribution. 1995. 1998. 2013. 2015. Four significant markers in twenty-seven years of a reading life. Five fragments that sum up how the life of one reader contributes to the lives of other readers. This is why reading matters—it inspires contribution.

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