Rising above through reading

16 March 2024
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Books helped Dylan through the toughest chapter of his life. Now, he’s helping thousands of others improve their lives through reading.

Imagine needing nine surgeries in two years. 

Being bedridden for 14 months straight – unable to sit, stand, walk, or see your loved ones. 

Not knowing if you’d ever walk again.

That’s the reality that confronted Captain Dylan Conway (Ret’d) when he was just 26. 

Originally from Biloela, Dylan went straight from high school to the Australian Defence Force Academy. From there, he went on to become an Infantry Platoon Commander at 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment.

He was primed for combat – but nothing prepared him for his toughest challenge.

Dylan Conway

Dylan Conway at the Jungle Training Wing - Combat Training Centre in Tully in 2016

“During my service, I was diagnosed with recurrent pilonidal sinus disease, which led to an extended amount of hospital stays and nine surgeries on my lower back,” Dylan recalls.

“Because I had gone from being physically fit and super keen on my job and progressing in my career, it came as quite a knockback. I couldn’t walk for around two years, and during that time, I lost a lot of purpose that I would normally get from my team, my roles and my physical fitness routine within the Army .”

One ultimately unsuccessful surgery led to another – and so on, each taking a further toll on Dylan’s body and mind.

“The unknown was the hardest thing. Doctors had no idea how long my recovery would take, how many surgeries I would need or what my body would look like afterwards,” he says.

“It was an incredibly difficult time. I remember having emergency surgery on Christmas Eve and waking up in hospital alone on Christmas Day. I was really, really low. Then, the following week, a book arrived from an old Army officer mentor.”

Dylan had never been much of a reader. But that book – Yes to Life in Spite of Everything by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl – gave him a critical means of escape, connection and motivation.

“I remember thinking to myself, wow, for the past few hours I've been relieved from the torment of disease, injuries and being stuck inside my own body. This is something I can do that's going to benefit me. And from there, I just committed to reading more and more books.”

Unbeknownst to him at the time, Dylan was using bibliotherapy – “a therapeutic approach that uses literature as a tool to support emotional wellbeing and mental health”. 

“A number of studies have shown how reading can benefit people's lives,” Dylan says. “Readers experience less loneliness and fewer symptoms of depression. Reading reduces stress by up to 68% in just six minutes, and it helps with dementia, which is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. And the beautiful thing is, reading can be used on top of other therapies to treat people when they're going through difficult times.

Dylan Conway

“I spent 12 years in the Infantry Corps, which is renowned as difficult and reserved for tough people. Reading has increased my resilience much more than anything I've ever done in the Defence Force.

“Reading about the trials people have faced and overcome definitely gave me the perspective to keep pushing forward, find meaning and also find a way that I could give back.”

Dylan’s way of giving back was to start Brothers and Books, a charity that “promotes bibliotherapy as a means to alleviate stress and support mental health”.

It does this by connecting people who are facing hardships with others who’ve triumphed over them, and the books that helped change their lives. 

Dylan Conway

“I thought, wouldn't it be great if I had all this knowledge from reading books before I spent four months fighting, being sad and not being able to accept my condition as a challenge?,” Dylan says. “So, I started Brothers and Books to pass on all the benefits that I gained from reading, and get more people to read.”

Since its founding in 2020, Brothers and Books has donated more than 9,100 books to set up around 60 free community libraries – each aimed at decreasing stress and increasing resilience – for organisations Australia-wide. These range from military units to veteran support centres (including Mates4Mates), RSL Sub Branches, first responder headquarters, homeless shelters, domestic violence centres, and private businesses.

“Moving forward, we're going to create a phone app and have online book club meetings for people who want to jump on our programs and join the coolest book club in Australia, if not the world,” Dylan says.

Dylan is on a mission to change the culture of reading in Australia, partnering with inspiring figures and delivering speeches throughout the community to “make reading cool”.

“Teachers and parents have been trying to get children to read for years, but what we're doing is trying to change the way kids look at reading to something that's going to benefit them in terms of resilience, strength and success,” Dylan explains.

Dylan Conway

“I show them the most successful people in the world – Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffet – and they all have a long history of reading. 

“It's been great to motivate so many Australians, but especially children, to read more books.”

Brothers and Books now has more than 22,000 club members and – through a range of activities, including Dylan’s recent attempt to beat the Guinness World Record for reading aloud non-stop –  has raised more than $145,000 for other charities.

And Dylan sees frequent proof of the impact his work is having.

Dylan Conway

“One of the main messages that we're trying to get across is when people get injured, they should switch to reading and activating their brain as quickly as possible. Several people have sent in photos of themselves reading in their hospital bed on the day of their injury, which is awesome,” he says.

“Also, a lot of young men will message us about the difficulties they're going through. The leading causes of stress in Australia are finances and relationships. We're able to put these people onto the best books ever written about those subjects and, after a couple of months, we often don't hear from them again because knowledge dispels fear. They've gained the knowledge to help themselves.

“In all the time I've spent running Brothers and Books, the thing I'm most grateful for is the fact that it’s solely positive. Everybody in the community encourages and supports one another. It brings me a lot of joy, and all I'm doing is sharing my passion and what helps me with others.”

To learn more or get involved, visit brothersnbooks.com

If you or someone you know needs support, please contact Open Arms on 1800 011 046 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.