In her book ‘Dream More: Celebrate the Dreamer in You’ Dolly Parton explores four life lessons, including the importance of education and reading. This short book, an expansion of a commencement speech she made at the University of Tennessee, is a fascinating glimpse into what makes Dolly the queen of country music and an inspiration to so many.
In the chapter ‘Learn More’ Dolly specifically discusses the influence that reading has had on her life, her songwriting and her charity work. Unlike many (including myself) Dolly’s love of reading did not start in school. For her, education was always challenging due to her poverty and difficult experiences with teachers and classmates. So what did foster a love of books in young Dolly? Her father was illiterate but it was her mother who spent a lot of time reading to Dolly, specifically from the Bible.
‘The stories from the Old Testament were wild, vivid stories of good and bad that both scared and excited me. It made me want to know more, and most of all, it made me want to read more.’
The Bible might have been the only book in her house, but it proved how important stories are and how they can transport you to another time and place, or another life. Plus these religious stories also fed into her lyric writing – in songs like The Seeker, Letter to Heaven and Travelling Thru. In fact God is everywhere in Dolly’s work and so are references to biblical stories, such as in the autobiographical Coat of Many Colours.
Country music has always been a storytelling genre, tracing its roots back to traditional ballads and folklore. The best country songwriters use their lyrics not just to tell their own stories but to create characters that explore universal themes. When you listen to Dolly’s work you can see such creativity in story songs like Joshua, The Bridge and Kentucky Gambler.
So to me, it’s no surprise that one of the best female songwriters of all time is also a self-confessed bookworm. Dolly explains that reading is a comfort but also an emotional experience.
‘I read on two levels – one to absorb the content of the book (what the author is trying to say) and the other to absorb the author’s creativity, which helps me to feel my own.’
By reading Dolly understands herself and the world better – two things which are pivotal to good songwriting.
Dolly’s childhood love of reading has never diminished – it’s still her way of escaping from the world and discovering endless new ideas. She admits to reading every day, sometimes for hours:
‘Today I read everything I can get my hands on. I believe that when you read, even if you don’t get a chance to get an education, you can learn about everything.’
In fact this love of reading has inspired her charity work in education and in 1996 she created the Imagination Library. This scheme gives children in their pre-school years a free book every month in order to try to encourage reading. Since it started the charity has been involved in sending out 85 million free books to children across the world. In Scotland, Dolly’s program specifically supports disadvantaged children who are in care and have to overcome many challenges in order to access books and progress with their reading.
It’s astonishing to think how this one woman from the Tennessee mountains has used her power to bring books to the world. Dolly’s wish to be remembered as the ‘book lady’ is so admirable considering her many other achievements.
Dolly understands that reading not only makes people more educated and creative it also makes people happier too. I can never really understand people who don’t like reading or try to diminish its significance – in our modern world reading is even more important than ever and we need more famous people like Dolly to keep promoting literacy.
And the other good thing about reading is that you can listen to music at the same time. So get a Dolly playlist on, read this inspiring little book from the Queen herself and feed your soul with her words.