Monday, May 21, 2018

Reading is Power: the Call of Stories

by Sheila Campbell
Librarian - Columbus Zoo 

I have been a zoo librarian for 20 years and one of the things that I have learned is that zoo people are readers.  Why? Because reading is a powerful tool that can be transformative!  “Read enough and you will find yourself in someone else’s words. Read a little more and you might find yourself not in the story of another human, but in the story of another animal.”  [1]

Staff, volunteers, docents, divers, and interpreters at our zoo connect with colleagues, share ideas inspired by reading and talk about ways storytelling can be used to encourage our visitors to share conservation messages with others and to get involved with and support local and global conservation organizations, like the zoo. They feel encouraged by the stories and knowledge shared and learn from each other’s stories and use these stories to influence our visitors to care about wildlife.  Books are “the ultimate tool for personal empowerment.”

According to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, losing yourself in a work of fiction might actually increase your empathy.   Research has shown that it is stories, not facts, that change perspective and inspire behavior change, making stories a powerful method for interpreters.  As Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996), asserted, “a book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”  

Who can deny that conservation is about our relationships? And that storytelling plays a central role in empowering educators and learners to synthesize and verbalize personal experiences, communicate feelings, and construct meaning, all of which are processes vital to effective learning.  Stories in books and videos  create mental images and images help us learn, grab our attention, explain tough concepts, and can inspire us to take action. Stories are both unique to specific animals and also part of the shared international story about wildlife and wild places.

So pick up a book and read and inspire!  Here’s what I’ve read recently:

Lightman, Alan.  Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine.  Pantheon, 2018.  Lightman worked for many years as a theoretical physicist—is the author of six novels, a memoir, 3 collections or essays, and several books on science.  I love his essays.  This collection “explores the tension between our yearning for permanence and certainty, and the modern scientific discoveries that demonstrate the impermanent and uncertain nature of the world.” (from the Penguin website at His writing is very lyrical and thought provoking and makes me want to be in a boat looking at stars on a lake in Maine.

Ackerman, Jennifer.  The Genius of Birds. Penguin, 2017.  I loved this book.  Not only did it read like a good novel, but it gave me a new perspective on the intelligence of birds.  Being called a “bird brain” is not an insult, but a compliment.

Mooallem, Jon.  Wild OnesA Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. Penguin, 2014.  Realizing that his little daughter’s world overflowed with artificial animals, i.e. butterfly pajamas, appliquéd owls, plush animals—while in the actual world she will inherit slides into “a great storm of extinction,” the author explores the world of modern conservation.  He highlights the “stories of three modern-day endangered species: the polar bear, victimized by climate change and ogled by tourists outside a remote northern town; the little-known Lange’s metalmark butterfly, foundering on a shred of industrialized land near San Francisco; and the whooping crane as it’s led on a months-long migration by costumed men in ultralight airplanes.”

Brain Pickings: a blog that features the writing of Maria Popova about culture, books, philosophy and eclectic subjects on and off the Internet. She reads voraciously and writes about what she reads.  This is my go-to place to find interesting books to read.

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