The Georgia Writers Hall of Fame — reading good writers is good for you

In this column, members of the Georgia Humanities Council and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.

By Jamil Zainaldin

Flannery O'Connor, an early reader. Credit: Ina Dillard Russell Library, Georgia College and State University

Flannery O’Connor, an early reader. Credit: Ina Dillard Russell Library, Georgia College and State University

Georgia has no shortage of influential writers. Flannery O’Connor, Margaret Mitchell, and Natasha Trethewey. Alfred Uhry, Ralph McGill, and Alice Walker. Conrad Aiken, W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary Hood, and Raymond Andrews. These are just some of the inductees into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, founded in 2000 by the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Georgia. They all have one thing in common: they are among the best anywhere at their storytelling craft.

But fewer of us are taking the time to read well-crafted works.

Technology has changed our reading habits, and the good news is that we are adapting with great speed in our online consumption of information. News reports, informational blogs, editorial opinion are part of a world at our fingertips. Online there’s a great democracy of voices, too. Blogging is practically a universal privilege, an engine of engagement among friends and strangers. Has there ever been a time in human history of such spatial connection, beyond the simple confines of village and community?

This desire to explore and communicate on the web is all well and good, but what, how, and why we read may be changing. Are there casualties in this changing landscape of visual consumption?

The seductive and fast-paced, information-rich world of the Internet may be drawing people of all ages away from discovering the pleasures and benefits of old-fashioned reading, that book-on-lap variety. Through the Web we rapidly glean great amounts of information, new and old; there is instant gratification in the endless possibilities presented by each search and click. In contrast, the act of sitting quietly with a text can seem quaint and even restrictive. How can that artifact of the ages, “the book,” possibly compete with these new information-harvesting machines?

It is important that we encourage our children — and remind ourselves — to take time to read works of fiction and nonfiction alike. Words have power.

Melissa Fay Greene, at induction to Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. Credit: Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Georgia

Melissa Fay Greene, at induction to Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. Credit: Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Georgia

Literature is more than information. Neuroscientists at Emory University are finding that reading fiction impacts the neural circuitry that governs our powers of empathy. Reading may be the best way yet to walk a mile in another’s shoes. Stories of our lives together teach us universal truths that we evade at great personal and societal cost; these are missed opportunities for growth.

Milledgeville’s Flannery O’Connor encouraged her readers to see the transcendence of the ordinary in their own lives. North Georgia’s Mary Hood shows us the power that place exerted on our ancestors, challenging us to consider the spiritual costs of our present-day modernity. The late Ferrol Sams may have written stories from a bygone era of small-town southern life, but his Georgia never loses its relevance in teaching timeless moral lessons.

We can read for depth, for lessons of human experience, for perspective on our own time and place, for inspiration and creativity, for healing and especially for the variety of life experiences that differ from our own.

In this New Year, settle back with a Georgia writer like Melissa Fay Greene or Judson Mitcham, Georgia’s poet laureate, or Terry Kay, Taylor Branch, Bruce Feiler, Alice Walker, Janisse Ray — authentic voices of our time and place. Support your local library, check out the Georgia Center for the Book‘s events, think about starting or joining a reading group, and don’t miss one of the nation’s premier book events — the Decatur Book Festival every Labor Day weekend.

Making time to read is making time for our souls to be nurtured. That’s what the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame celebrates.

Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

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