As we approach summer, many of my professor and teacher friends are posting on their summer reading plans. Also, several of my friends have been posting this piece on reclaiming reading for leisure and enlightenment via Facebook. In many ways, all of this echoes the things that Neil Gaiman has said about reading. Essentially, that reading fiction for leisure is good. I agree. I also don’t think people (and especially young people) read enough. However, I want to offer my own very different personal trajectory as a reader and suggest that we all read for different reasons. Also, I’d like to argue that we all read for different things as well and that we shouldn’t idealize certain approaches to reading.
This past winter, while staying at my parent’s house, I showed Hande my writing assignments from grades 5 to 10. In that folder, there were papers on Constantine the Great, Lord of the Flies, Shakespeare’s plays, the American Civil War, To Kill a Mockingbird, the history of Iraq, and nuclear power. She remarked it was very clear I was meant to be a social scientist as my English assignments weren’t nearly as good as my “social studies” papers. In response, I said that I never liked “literature” anyway. My comment that day wasn’t completely true. I grew up reading a lot. My family had a set of abridged version classics such as Moby Dick, several works of Dickens, Mutiny on the Bounty, Black Beauty, and the work of Mark Twain that I read while in elementary school and junior high. I also read fantasy novels and had a love for Greek mythology. I remember enjoying The Great Brain series of books. Yet, it felt easy for my say that I didn’t like “literature.”
As literature lover, Hande was horrified by my response. She demanded that I never say such a horrible thing again. I reacted by re-igniting our longstanding argument over Catcher in the Rye. I hated the book and still consider it a waste of $8 (I read it for the first time 8 years ago on a boat ride from Turkey to Italy). She loved the book and we’ve been arguing about this for years. I’ve only recently come to understand the reason for this disagreement. We read books differently. She likes the characters – Holden, his teacher and sister Phoebe. However, the Catcher in the Rye has none of the things I look for in book – history, politics and details of social life/structure.
As a kid reading the abridged version of Oliver Twist or even watching the musical Oliver! I don’t think I ever thought much of the characters. Today, the characters are a blur. What stood out and continues to stands out to me were the conditions that the characters lived in. Orphanages and workhouses stand out in my memory more than individual characters. As I reflect upon the many books I’ve read, in general it’s not the characters or even story I remember. In Moby Dick, I was more fascinated by whaling more than with the characters. I remember harpoons and blubber, not Ahab’s obsession. In The Great Brain series, I was most interested in the technicalities of toilets being installed in the “frontier” West. The practical economic realities of collecting money from a fountain to live in a museum is one of the few things I still remember in the From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I don’t even remember why the kids were in the museum.
There’s magic in reading. However, for me the magic was never found in larger than life characters or the idea of adventure and fantasy. The magic for me was being able to see the past come alive, or how society worked. Basically, as a teen, I was reading as a social scientist. I wasn’t interested allegory, symbolism, and the things that most people celebrate when they discuss the joys of reading. I’m not interested in dreaming with open eyes. Rather, when I read fiction, I am searching for nonfiction in those texts. In other words, I disagree with Neil Gaiman’s statement that “reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do.” I disagree with Gaiman’s assertion that fiction has a special place in activating our imaginations. While, I agree that fiction can be a gateway drug to reading, it doesn’t mean that nonfiction can’t inspire us.
We all read for different reasons, and we all read for different things. Today, I don’t read a lot of fiction. The last novel I read for fun was A Game of Thrones, and I believe prior to that might have been Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly and before that Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down (over a span of 5-6 years). There might be some Dan Brown in there also. However, I enjoy reading nonfiction more than fiction. I know I enjoyed SuperFreakonomics more than any other recently read fiction.
In conclusion, I don’t think people read enough. As an educator, I believe reading books is important. However, I don’t believe in the idealized myth of what reading is supposed to be like – reading a physical paperback novel and daydreaming. Reading nonfiction on an e-ink Kindle is still reading. It might be a different experience, but it can still inspire and provoke deep thought.
My reading list this summer consists of:
- Finishing my friend Jeff Howison’s book on Reagan.
- Bourdieu’s Distinction
- Robert Sampson’s Great American City
Happy Reading Everyone