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Reflections: Love of Books Leads to Academic Success

by Brandon Dixon
 | Aug 31, 2015

The following is the full version of an essay Brandon Dixon wrote when applying for the Gates Millennium Scholarship—which he was awarded. An abbreviated version appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Literacy Today.

Brandon Dixon headshotFor some reason, my classmates do not believe me when I answer the question, “how did you get smart?” by pointing to the long list of books I have read since I began devouring them sometime around second grade. They give me incredulous glances and sneer at the concept of “simple reading” being the key to academic success. It truly is a shame they do not believe me, because after truly examining my intellectual growth throughout the past 12 years, I accredit more than 50 % of my knowledge to what I gleaned while reading a book.  

For the record, I do not read textbooks, or encyclopedias, or dictionaries. I am a lover of fiction, and a purveyor of fantasy, and I have recently taken to dubbing myself a “dabbler” in science fiction. More often than not, I am reading about things that have never happened in all of humanity’s history. I read about things taken right out of the vivid imagination of the author, stuff that wouldn’t hold up against the harsh, fact-based reality of the world. I have not learned a myriad of specific, physical skills from reading, because very few writers go into excruciating detail when describing simple processes like changing a tire, or knotting a tie. But I have acquired a few specific skills that have acted as gateways into the world of other knowledge I have obtained. 


The answer lies between a book’s pages. More often than not, I have no idea what some writers are talking about. There are authors (like Donna Tartt) who manage to employ beautiful strings of advanced vocabulary throughout their novels. I know a lot of words, but I am not a walking human dictionary, nor can I automatically derive the hidden connotations of every word that I come across. In order to be an avid reader and actually get something out of it, I had to acquire the skill of relentless curiosity in the very beginning. With it, the world became open. Topics and themes that would normally soar over my head became things that pinged my attention and sent me scrambling to the Internet to discover the meaning. When I heard of new scientific theories, I would barrage the budding scientists in my life with endless questions to better understand exactly what the authors would talk about.  

And while I have found knowledge in many other places besides books, literature has been the one constant “school” in my life. I never have to ask for permission to enter the pages of a novel and discover something new about the world around me. I have learned more about the human condition and the manner in which humanity carries itself through reading than any introductory psychology course at my high school could have taught me.

I have connected to a central hub of sorts through literature—the depository where authors dump fragments of their personal experiences and observations of the people around them. Because of literature, I have developed not only curiosity, but the keen ability to understand and to empathize with the people around me. There are very few emotions that I have not experienced transitively through the conduit of a novel, and because of that vast internalized understanding of human emotions, I have been able to expand upon my interpersonal skills.  

Because of reading, and because of literature, I have developed a host of intangible skills, things I cannot demonstrate with my body, only with my character. Leadership, although it has been undoubtedly tempered by experiences at school, grew out of my love affair with tales of heroism in novels. It was a skill that I revered, and one I truly wanted to emulate. Reading tales of people leading their teams, their units, and their families throughout life gave me perspective on leadership before I even had the chance to actively practice it. It is perhaps because I got to watch (or rather, read) various styles of leadership in action at a young age that I was able to jump so readily into leadership as a teenager.

Perhaps the most important intangible skill I derived from my ravenous reading exploits is my sense of morality. Good and evil sit in the center of every good story. Sometimes it is obvious which side is which. The good guys often brandish gleaming swords of righteousness and are from the beginning of the story slated against the proverbial “dark witch.” But there are also stories where good is indistinguishable from bad, where the bad guys wear the same smiles as the good guys; where each side is motivated by something that they believe to be inherently “good.”

More than anything, these novels have taught me about the multiplicity of morality—how ambiguous and overall ill-fitting the terms “good” and “evil” are. In the world, there is no definite right and wrong because everyone looks at the world from a different perspective. Reading so many stories that have accentuated this fact has given me the cognizance necessary to understand the intrinsic motivations behind people’s actions, and also develop my own understanding of what is and is not “moral.”  

In many ways, the true Renaissance man is not he who studies the physical crafts in school, or learns them through apprenticeship. Knowledge of the deeper, more everlasting kind can be learned simply from picking up a book and appreciating it for the lessons within. I have not physically experienced a lot of things in my life, but my mind has been places my body has never been—learned things that my hands will never understand. Foraging through the pages of the many novels I have read through, life has been my way of obtaining knowledge and I value the intangible skills I have developed more than I do any tangible skills I have learned elsewhere.  

Brandon Dixon is a recent graduate of Girard College, a 1–12 boarding school in Philadelphia, PA, and is now a freshman at Harvard, in Cambridge, MA.

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