How Reading Changed My Life: A Speech

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This is a speech I wrote for the Toastmasters course I’m doing. I might also upload the video after I’ve performed it.

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one

Elon Musk.

Billionare. Polymath. Progidy. Philanthropist. A beloved buffoon.

But, most importantly… a reader.

As a child, Elon Musk often read ten hours a day. He adored science fiction and fantasy. With me I have two of his favourite series: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Dune Trilogy. 

Musk says, and I quote: “I was raised by books”.  Do you know what that means? Here, in my hands, I hold Elon Musk’s parents. I think Dune is the father.

These books shaped his young, supple mind. They inspired him: to go from reading about spaceships, to creating them.

But how, you might ask, could mere words and ink transform a man? Why are books so special?

To answer this question, I will tell a story. The story of how reading changed my own life.

My parents used to read me bedtime stories. I remember, most distinctly, lying curled up under a blanket, eyelids drooping like leaden weights, but clinging on, electrified by the terrible gnashing and gnawing of Gollum.

But, as most little boys are, I was impatient. In fact, I got so irritated with their slow, sedate, steady reading, and having to wait night after night after night for the ending, that I began to read on my own.

At six or seven, I finished the Hobbit. My dad was scandalised that I had read it without him. He still jokes about it.

Around this time, I received, for Christmas, an object that would change my life. I remember that night so well. Crouched on my grandma’s luxuriant persian rug, I waited, almost frothing with anticipation, for my name to be called. Finally, my enormous suspense was lifted, the spell of waiting broken by the words: “From mom and dad, to Louis”. I uncoiled, shot up like an elastic band, snatched my present, and retreated to a corner – guarding it jealously, as a starving dog guards a bone. I might have growled just a bit. I sniffed it; rattled it; wondering what this strange, rectangular object could be. Slowly, tentatively, I peeled back a corner – much as one would open a chocolate bar. Realising the contents of this mysterious package, I shredded the wrapping paper in a whirlwind of excitement. I was right! Star Wars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. My prayers had been answered. Hallelujah!

In the following months and years, I practically devoured this book. In fact, if I had been any younger, I might have chewed it a couple times.

Then, in grade three, I read The Lord of the Rings, after my dad told me I could watch the movies, only after I had read the books. He expected this delay me a few years – how tragically naïve. He would soon find out just how determined children can be.

Now, I probably did not understand half the words. And I certainly overlooked any of its literary qualities. But, I got the gist, and I adored it as a story of adventure, and heroes and magic. And I loved Tolkien’s warm, homely voice.

I soaked up these words and images like only a child can. They remain embedded in my memory, like travelling companions on the journey that is life.

But how, one might ask, could mere stories have changed my life?

The greatest gift these books gave me is a love of reading. From those early years, I have read voraciously. And my menu has expanded almost infinitely – I have gone from ingurgating sci-fi and fantasy, to sampling the sensuous syllables of poetry, devouring the delectable delights of literature, and indulging in the rich, thick, steaming pudding of the philosophers. History has become a sweet shop, and each morsel I consume only feeds the appetite of my soul.

I have tasted the fruits of human thought – the merest sliver – and it has set my mind ablaze.

And it is only natural that from this early love of stories, grows a love of storytelling. This my parents can attest to: as a child, I spent hours babbling on about wars and battles and the things I have read. I followed the everywhere – their offices, their bedrooms, even their bathrooms! There was no escape from my enthusiasm.

Sometimes, they got so tired of listening that they just… slipped away. But this did not bother me. No. I would just carry on telling stories, albeit to myself. Is that not what a writer does anyway?

Later in my life, these two elements merged. As my reading progressed from stories to ideas, and my storytelling instinct burgeoned, I began to write non-fiction. Now I’ve been writing an hour a day for almost two years. This, I have decided, I will make my career – I want to become a journalist, or a blogger, or an author. Something to do with writing at least.

So reading truly has changed my life.

But reading is not just for me.

Now I know what some of my peers are thinking. “Oh, he gets good marks. He is smart. That is why he reads.”

I do not want to come across as arrogant, but I consider myself reasonably intelligent, it is true. But where do you think this intelligence comes from? I do not have an amazing memory, as Jaskaran does. I am not naturally witty and eloquent like Ainsley. I cannot, like Ebrahim, speak fluently and persuasively when put on the spot. I believe, most sincerely, that my good marks, my writing and speaking and confidence, and many of the other things and people I have been blessed with, can be traced back to a single moment, perhaps the defining moment of my life: the first time my parents picked up a book, and read me a story. This was, in many ways, my genesis.

So no, reading is not for quote-on-quote ‘smart’ people.

Others have this misconception that you can only read ‘the classics’ – mostly literature, philosophy, and history. That is also nonsense. Read what you enjoy. A sincere passion for reading will take you far further than any number of mouldy tomes ever could.

I can also, for the audience’s benefit, wax lyrical on the concrete improvements reading may bring: It enhances your powers of recall, and various faculties of the intelligence. It increases your attention span and ability to focus. It grows your vocabulary, and lengthens your life. It deepens your thought, and cultivates a shrewd and subtle mind. And those are just from the act of reading itself, ignoring all the wondrous things you can learn by the content of books…

If knowledge is power, and the pen our mightiest weapon, then reading is the greatest form of training – for your mind and spirit. As George R.R. Martin said:

A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep it’s edge.

Reading is also the greatest form of travelling: it transcends space, time, culture, and even reality itself.

But ultimately, reading is not about benefits and rewards and success. Yes, it can bring these things. Yes, they are nice.

But a genuine love of reading – not reading for the sake of success – is a gift that transcends the material…

Earlier, I posed a question: Why are books so special? I think it is time we have an answer.

A good book is special, because it is human existence, distilled to its essence. It is experience and knowledge, condensed. It is purest emotion, preserved in a stratum of ink. A book is special, because it is not just a life, but life itself, manifested in a million meaningless letters…

In the words of George R.R. Martin, who said it best:

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one

So today I want to challenge you, all of you: pick up a book. Anything you think you would be interested in. Go buy something, or loan one from our wonderful school library, maybe steal it from your friend (if you must), or pirate it on your phone.

Now that you have this book, read five pages. Just five. Do this everyday. Soon you will find, you cannot just read five pages… You will want to read more… And more… And more… So grows a love of reading…. So can your life be changed.


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