Reading Our Humanity: Some Thoughts on Intelligence, Disability, and What Makes Us Human

A typical scene in our household

I love reading. I’ve always loved reading. My mom says I taught myself to read, as if language fell out of the sky and into my head in the form of the English alphabet. I devoured books as a kid, priding myself on reading chapter books from beginning to end more than once, challenging myself to read more than one book in full every night of the week. I even feigned illness once when I was nine so I could finish reading Gone with the Wind. I was an English major in college, which basically meant I got to read two novels a week and count it as schoolwork for four years. Reading has always been an integral part of who I am. I love it.

So when Penny was born and the doctors told me she would have an intellectual disability (they called it mental retardation, but that was seven years ago so let’s hope they might use different language now), I grieved the thought that I wouldn’t be able to share my love of reading with my daughter. There was something good in my grief in that it acknowledged this part of myself that I longed to share with my daughter, but there was something ugly about my grief too. It betrayed my assumption that Penny’s life needed an intellectual component in order to matter, in order for us to relate to one another, perhaps even in order to love her.

In time, I let go of my need for Penny to share my love of reading. I trusted that the love I felt for her as a baby would only expand as she grew older. I believed that I would find other ways for us to relate to each other.

Ironically enough, Penny is a bookworm. As I’ve written before, she devours books, much like her mother. She is helping William learn to read. If you ask her to name her favorite activity, her answer will probably be reading (with the monkey bars a close second).

But my early experience of relinquishing the need for reading to be a part of her in order for me to love her still exposed the ways I had idolized intelligence, and reading in particular. I used to base people’s value upon their ability to do certain things, including their intellectual abilities, and Penny’s entrance in my life helped me to see the ways I had cut myself off from the goodness, the worth, the possibilities for loving friendship with those who do not have the same literary aptitude as I do.

So I read my friend Karen Swallow Prior’s recent article for the Atlantic–How Reading Makes Us More Human– with some measure of hesitation. The title itself set off warning bells. Throughout the ages human beings have used intelligence as a way to cull out the unwanted among us, and I worry that conflating our humanity with reading ability (or proclivity) will only lead to discrimination and even death for people with intellectual disabilities. Karen writes:

Reading is one of the few distinctively human activities that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. As many scholars have noted, and Paul too mentions in her piece, reading, unlike spoken language, does not come naturally to human beings. It must be taught. Because it goes beyond mere biology, there is something profoundly spiritual — however one understands that word — about the human ability, and impulse, to read. In fact, even the various senses in which we use the word captures this: to “read” means not only to decipher a given and learned set of symbols in a mechanistic way, but it also suggests that very human act of finding meaning, of “interpreting” in the sense of “reading” a person or situation. To read in this sense might be considered one of the most spiritual of all human activities.

Again, these thoughts concerned me, and yet I resonated with much of her argument. She describes her own experience:

As I relayed in my literary and spiritual memoir, the books I have read over a lifetime have shaped my worldview, my beliefs, and my life as much as anything else. From Great Expectations I learned the power the stories we tell ourselves have to do either harm and good, to ourselves and to others; fromDeath of a Salesman I learned the dangers of a corrupt version of the American Dream; from Madame Bovary, I learned to embrace the real world rather than escaping into flights of fancy; from Gulliver’s Travels I learned the profound limitations of my own finite perspective; and from Jane Eyre I learned how to be myself. These weren’t mere intellectual or moral lessons, although they certainly may have begun as such. Rather, the stories from these books and so many others became part of my life story and then, gradually, part of my very soul.

Like Karen, I do believe that reading has enhanced my own humanity and in particular my ability to empathize, to imagine the world from another point of view. Moreover, reading has opened up a world of possibilities for Penny.

I wrote Karen to express some of the ways her post resonated with me and also concerned me. Her response to my concerns and questions will appear on this blog tomorrow.

Meanwhile–what books have shaped your view of the world? Has reading made you more human? In what ways?


About Amy Julia Becker

Amy Julia Becker writes and speaks about family, faith, disability, and culture. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she is the author of Penelope Ayers: A Memoir, A Good and Perfect Gift (Bethany House), and Why I Am Both Spiritual and Religious (Patheos Press).


  1. RachelMarieStone says:

    Like you, I share a reluctance to name “what makes us human” as anything other than simply being human. As a person of Jewish descent (and an English major) I am well aware of the highly literate and cultured Nazi concentration camp guards who nonetheless managed to see Jewish people as subhuman. I guess I’d say my experience of reading is that it has expanded my understanding of the different ways in which humans experience the world. Certain stories have helped me learn empathy and to expand my understanding of what a ‘good life’ can look like. Yet those who for reasons of intellectual limitation or limitations on their educational opportunities (a large portion of women in Malawi are illiterate) are no less human or less capable of empathy or understanding of the ‘good life’ than I.

    • Karen Swallow Prior says:

      Rachel, I hope you will read my response here tomorrow and if you’ve not already, my original article, which talks about reading as a spiritual activity not an intellectual one. I feel like the article is so far from what some that is suggested here that it’s quite dismaying to see it taken this way. I even address the Nazi issue in the original article with the same thing in mind that you have here. I wonder if you think there are things that are “dehumanizing.” If so, doesn’t it stand to reason that there are things which, on the other hand, are “humanizing”? Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • Of course I will! I’m looking forward to it. I did read your Atlantic piece, which I like very much and resonate with, and I think I agree heartily with it all (though I’m still not sure Godwin’s law disqualifies admitting Goethe-reading Nazis as counterevidence, nor that Nazis were simply morally consistent within their own perverse noetic structure.) When you ask whether there are things that are humanizing and dehumanizing–of course, and that helps a lot with the tricky word “makes!” MY experience is one of reading making me “more human.” But I don’t want to think that people who don’t read are “less human”–and I suspect that’s not what you’re saying, either.

      • RachelMarieStone says:

        Oh no! I wrote a whole comment and accidentally deleted it. Shoot! Basically, I agree with your Atlantic article wholeheartedly (except I still think the Nazi example is valid), and the humanizing meaning of “making” (ie, shaping, not constituting) makes a lot of sense. Books have helped me be more empathetic, I think, but I just pause when I think of those who can’t read for various reasons. I really sense that reading makes ME (and my children) ‘more’ human, but I don’t want to imply that others are ‘less’ human. But I also don’t think you are implying that. I just think it is tricky to talk about, and I’m not particularly adept at it. Looking forward to the post tomorrow/today!

  2. Wonderful post! I struggle with this as well. Where I grew up, intelligence was very highly valued and it was really the only thing that mattered. As I got into disability rights later I realized the danger of that viewpoint.

  3. lkinross says:

    That doesn’t look like me!
    I’ve only skimmed this, but I have a real problem with defining our humanity by our abilities. There are lots of ways we can develop empathy and an understanding of how it feels to walk in another’s shoes. What about going and sitting with someone who’s dying? Or sitting with someone who can’t speak? Anything that can be learned in a book can be learned in real life. This whole argument feels very exclusionary and elitist to me.

    • Louise, I think you’ll like Karen’s response tomorrow. To give a preview, she didn’t come up with the title and she distinguishes two meanings of the word “make” as in what “makes” us human. It could mean what “constitutes” our humanity or what “has a humanizing affect upon us.” Anyway, hope you’ll tune in tomorrow and let us know what you think!

  4. Honestly I find this a very troubling position. What makes us human is being born as well human. What makes us compassionate is not reading. It’s interacting with other humans and the world. Books can help in that process but it’s not the only way. This kind of thinking reveals, I think, a rather biased Western positioning on what it means to be human. It excludes who are denied education through colonial practices for example.

  5. Having just read KSP’s book (though not the article you refer to, yet) I am so looking forward to further discussion on this topic. I look at my own 2 kids and what polar opposites they are. My daughter, now 14, was reading Beatrix Potter independently at age 3.5 and acting out stories my husband and I had never read to her(we overheard her talking about Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle strarching “shirt-fronts” — whaaaat??!!??) She is now a voracious reader and talented writer. My son is 10 and can read (with great pride) sentences like “I like to play with a ball.” Their inner worlds and ther life experiences will be very different as a result of their different cognitive and literate abilities, but I would never want to say that this difference is the measure of their humanness in any way. So this is a really big issue; thanks for raising it.

  6. Reading with monkey bars a close second? Woo-hoo, Penny’s a girl after my own heart! So looking forward to the second part of this tomorrow, AJ.

  7. Good literature illuminates the human condition. But I wondered, as I read, about the hundreds of learning disabled kids I have taught. We’re they les “human” because reading posed a mighty challenge to them? I think not.