As a student, I would always sit in class amazed when during a lecture professors would start to rattle off various authors and works that related in some way to the topic we were covering that particular day. I never thought I would be able to reach that same level of knowledge; however, I regularly catch myself in classes doing the same thing that always amazed me about the individuals who taught and mentored me. Over the past couple of weeks, I have been thinking about what it means as a professor or teacher to be able to accomplish this seemingly erudite feet. What I discovered though, as I have always known, was that this pedagogical sleight of hand exists as part of a facade that we put on as academics.
When the “10 Bands I Have Seen (One of Them is a Lie)” meme hit Facebook a couple of weeks ago, I have to admit I participated. I also started to think about alternative lists that could be applied to the same premise. One was “10 Books I Have Read (One of Them is a Lie).” Fortunately, one of my friends beat me to the punch (with a slight variation) and sparked an interesting thread where people admitted to authors and texts that have never read. Some of the people that replied, like myself, are academics, and the lists provided an insight into what we read and what we choose to skip over.
I could’ve listed a multitude of books that, as a college English teacher, one might expect I have read, but I only chose to provide a few, specifically anything by Charles Dickens or Jane Austen or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This may not seem like a stretch for someone who focuses on American literature; however, these are names that frequently appear on college syllabi. So, how did I make it through almost eleven years of higher education without ever reading them? Does it matter? Should it? Would it be different if I admitted I have never read a word of Frank Norris, Mark Twain, or John Updike? (One of those is a lie.)
The “alternative” game coalesced with two recent articles I’ve seen on “nonreading” and on the facades we carry with us as teachers and professionals. Shelia Liming’s “In Praise of Not Reading” argues that reading, like writing, is a form of work and that we cannot ignore this aspect of sitting down and cracking the spine. Liming points out that individuals, including Trump, see reading in relation to inactivity, a view that has echoes in history when many saw reading fiction as an idle activity that corrupted the reader. The correlation is not one-to-one, but the sentiment of reading not leading to anything productive that will further society exists within both ideas.
Liming continually circles back to the point that reading is, in fact, work, and I completely agree. She notes that students at Duke refused to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, zeroing in on Brian Grasso’s comments that the university did not have people like him in mind when then assigned it, almost like Grasso didn’t exist. Far from being the truth, Grasso’s arguments highlight a myriad of issues that I do not have time to get into today. The key aspect here, though, is that Grasso comes across as unwilling to learn about other people’s experiences and to engage in possibly difficult conversations that the graphic novel brings up. These are the keys to why we should read, and Liming highlights them by stating that reading “produces things like experience, knowledge, discomfort and communion.”
These are important results from reading. The act of sitting down and, pardon the phrase, diving into a book brings us into contact with people, experiences, and perspectives that are either familiar or unfamiliar, and in this way, we learn about those around us and see that while we may be different, we are far more similar than we may have once thought. James Baldwin always says it best,
You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important.
While the story may be different, the themes become universal to some extent, and art allows us to see the universal connections that join us together as humans across geographical and temporal space. Reading doesn’t take much, and Liming shows that reading about 30 minutes a day will net the average person fifty books per year. That’s fifty experiences where a person can engage with ideas and thoughts that will hopefully lead them into communion with one another on a greater level.
Maximillian Alvarez touches on this same idea in his review of Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. Alvarez focuses on the facade that we create to make ourselves look like we have read more than we actually have or know more than we actually know. This facade, of course, works as a defense mechanism that seeks to hide our “failures” (what I have never read) in front of colleagues and students. However, we need to talk about these failures, not just in what we have never read but also in the rejections we receive.
We need to be honest, especially with students, that we do not know everything. We need to let them know that we have gaps. We are not the be all end all of knowledge. We enter the parlor with the conversation already in motion, and when we leave, the conversation will continue. Where do we add to it is what we must decide.
Can I read everything I want to? No. Is reading productive? Yes. For me, I read texts that I know I want to work on or ones that I know will increase my knowledge in the areas that I research. I carve out time almost everyday to read either to prepare for class, for projects in the future, or just because. It, along with writing and class prep, is part of my work schedule. I have chosen a profession where reading is an integral cog in the machine.
For those whose profession does not involve reading, I would suggest to take up Liming’s advice. Read a little each day. Thirty minutes a pop is doable for most of us. Read while waiting for your oil change. Read at a restaurant. Read while drinking at the coffee shop. There are opportunities and spaces to read, just take advantage of them.
There is a lot more I did not cover here. I would love to hear what you think either in teh comments below or on Twitter: @silaslapham.