Occasionally, I’ll have student ask me what I like to read. My answer is usually pretty specific – nonfiction books about farming, food, and faith, collections of essays, novels written by my favorite writers (Marilynne Robinson, Margaret Atwood, etc), and mysteries for the car. Even less occasionally, a student will ask me what he/she should read, and I always begin by asking what they like. For sports, Ron Carlson is great. For fashion/romance, Jennifer Crusie is pretty cool. For tech heads, I suggest they check out thrillers like those of Tom Clancy or James Patterson. I even had a student say she “really liked this” after an essay-writing class, and she wanted to know what to read. I told her to read more of what she’d liked in class – Sedaris, Hoagland, Duncan.

But when I think about what I actually read – not what I read most and not what I always actively choose to read – my answer to the “What do you read” question becomes very broad – EVERYTHING. Because reading is what I do when I’m not doing something else, I’ll read most anything including the backs of shampoo bottles in the bathroom, car manuals if I’m stuck in traffic without a book, car magazines at Jiffy Lube, posters about events in the hallway before class starts. I really will read everything.

As a kid, my parents used to get a few magazines, National Geographic most notably, and I would set out every month to read every article. I was pretty obsessive about it actually. I sat down with the magazine and read from cover to cover. And I learned a lot. I don’t remember all of it, or at least I don’t remember it until it comes up in a rousing game of Trivial Pursuit, but I did learn a lot from reading that way.

By reading everything, I gleaned three key lessons:
1. Everything has value. Even if I don’t know what the ingredients list means on my shampoo bottle, I can start to break down words into their parts and see what roots they have. Since I”m a word junky, this is actually kind of fun.
2. Every piece of writing has a purpose. Whether it’s too inform, persuade, or entertain, the person who put those words to paper or screen or CD had a reason for doing so, and to be read well, I need to keep that reason in mind.
3. There is something to learn from everything. I may not really care about Wildebeests all that much, but if I read about their migration in the latest Smithsonian, I begin to appreciate the beauty and power of a movement of animals that encompasses thousands of individuals. Wow!

Because of the ideas, I always end my conversations with students who ask what they should read by saying, “Anything and everything. Read what you love and what you hate. Just read.”

Philosophical Reading Room of the Szabo Ervin LibraryPhilosophical Reading Room of the Szabo Ervin Library