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.”