Imagining Place: Reading to a Better World

As a writer, editor, activist, and community builder, my job has many components. I write essays (like these), watch movies, do media criticism, listen to other peoples’ experiences, research, do so many things that look like work.

But there is a part of my job that I often forget to look at as my work. I prioritize it less when the days are long, when the deadlines are many, when the people I need to speak with and the e-mails I need to write are endless.

I forget that it is my job to read.

I think I forget this because reading was my first love. My safe place. The thing that kept me from feeling alone. I remember reading while my father was dying. Reading while I flew across country to move to an entirely new city called New York. I read to forget, I read to remember, I read to process and to grow and to feel.

To me, after so many years of reading being my happy place, it is difficult to consider reading “work.”

But with the pandemic, I stopped being able to read. My reading days became a surprise—times when I was able to pick up a book and devour it were special, and the books that caught my attention were precious.

Seamus Heaney, C.L. Polk, Seanan McGuire, Maria Dahvana Headley, Nikita Gill—they all found me in my distracted places, their words filling the silence, catching my attention when I struggled to give it freely.

I am working toward treating reading as my job now, remembering that to read is to fill my mind with voices that are not my own, perspectives that educate me.

Reading may never be a simple joy for me again—I long for the days when I hid under blankets with a flashlight and devoured new stories. But it will be the thing that brings me back into the world.

And it will be the thing that makes me better as a human, not just as a writer or editor.

I think to build a better future we must read widely. Reading outside of our comfort zones is a matter of survival. Whether you’re not an SF/F reader and you turn to try a new genre, or you’re a hardened Heinlein fan and you read some litfic, the ability to hear and listen to new styles, consume a new medium, understand a new voice…these are the things which help us build the future we want to see.

Reading is a gift, it is the thing that makes us understand one another. Sometimes I think that the ability to disappear into a good book is a bit like meditation. To be consumed by story gives us a space to breathe.

When you come out of a book, you are forever changed by the story and by the author.

So I encourage you this summer to make space, not just to read, but to read something new. To read something that challenges you, that makes you shift your perspective. Kick yourself out of the ordinary, because it might just make you a better person, and that will help you build a better world for all of us.



Elsa Sjunneson

Elsa Sjunneson is a Deafblind author and editor living in Seattle, Washington. Her fiction and nonfiction writing has been praised as “eloquence and activism in lockstep” and has been published in dozens of venues around the world. She has been a Hugo Award finalist seven times, and has won Hugo, Aurora, and BFA awards for her editorial work. When she isn’t writing, Sjunneson works to dismantle structural ableism and rebuild community support for disabled people everywhere. Her work includes her debut memoir Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism, her Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla novel Sword of the White Horse, and her episode for Radiolab “The Helen Keller Exorcism.”

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