Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Don't Fear The Reader

I don’t read much. Not like I should. I’m not reading big, thick, heavy, complicated books of significance. I’m not reading the classics or the heady bestsellers, the books that make you feel like you've really accomplished something.

I read magazine articles – short magazine articles. I read snippets and sound bites and headlines and lead paragraphs. All this makes me interesting at parties, adept in short conversations, but if you corner me and ask about Russian literature, I may panic. I fear I lack depth. Is there a support group for this? Hello, my name is Jay, and I only read a book or two per year. 

I linger is what I do. I’m slow. I never have a bookmark and I overestimate my ability to remember what page I’m on. Losing my place means I lose interest and choose sleep instead. In contrast, my wife is a machine. She’s not a speed reader, but she chews through books, chapter after chapter. This is a smart woman with good habits I unfortunately don’t share. 

I use the party metaphor because I began worrying more about my literary deficiency after attending two parties. At party #1, at a friend’s place in St. Paul, I got into a discussion with a guy who was visiting from New York. He mentioned Isabelle Allende, and I naively asked, “Who’s Isabelle Allende?” He responded by telling me in a scolding tone that “Isabelle Allende is a VERY FAMOUS writer.” 

I responded with a silent, stern stare, but the little voice in my head said: "First of all, William Shakespeare is a VERY FAMOUS writer. Secondly, you’re pretty gutsy to be this insulting, with people you've never met before, on unfamiliar turf. If I were an obnoxious New Yorker, like yourself, I might have called you a &@!$% to your face, but I’m just a quiet Midwestern guy. Better I tell everyone at this party you have a communicable disease, and leave it at that. How ya like me now, Mr. Contagious?"

Isabelle Allende is a novelist from Chile, and the daughter of a former Chilean president, for all my fellow Midwestern hicks out there who wondered. 

At party #2, a guy I've known for years came up to me and asked me if I've read any good books. He talked at length about his reading list, and I scrambled to remember the last thing I read. While I managed to spit out something intelligible, I wondered why I was getting so irritated. Why on earth did this simple line of conversation make him appear so smart and make me feel so dumb? I’m sure he didn't mean it that way - the man was just looking for some reading recommendations. 

Clearly I have some issues that need attention, one of which may be that I should be reading more instead of going to all these parties. "If only I were a little smarter." How many times has that thought gone through our little heads? That’s what the desire to be better read is about for many of us, isn't it? 

Since we were kids, our parents and our teachers indoctrinated us with the belief that the smart kids were readers. Being told to read more was a warning meant to incite good behavior through fear, like "drink your milk," or "don’t crack your knuckles," or "stay away from those power tools." Not reading had harmful consequences. 

It’s undeniable that reading is a tremendous part of learning for children, but what about with adults well past their school years? Surely there isn't a direct correlation between adult reading and intelligence, no formula that states [(Reputable Novels – Romance Novels) x Age = IQ Score)]. 

Some people could read as a profession and not get any smarter or more interesting, and conversely, others don’t even read book covers and yet possess extraordinary minds. But, for many of us, that thought still lurks, "if only I were a little smarter."

Maybe that’s why there’s so much money being spent chasing the bigger, faster, smarter brain. Look at all the memory aids, omega-3 fish products and mental exercises on the market, all the speed-reading courses and supplements and snake oils exploiting our fears of dumbness…er, stupidity…whatever. 

The point is, there’s a lot of insecurity out there. I say let’s acknowledge it. Hello, my name is Jay, and I’m insecure! Let’s acknowledge it’s a competitive world out there, with a lot of pressure to be the best. But getting so worried leaves us vulnerable to exploitation. Remember that next time you watch an infomercial for Ginkgo Biloba Brain Enhancers on late-night TV. Instead of calling that number toll-free, tell yourself that a better financial position awaits, "if only I were a little smarter." 

This is the phrase that bears repeating – "smart is overrated." Those who went to college probably noticed that being smart helps you get by, but not as much as dedication or patience or doing something you love. Those who didn't go to college probably noticed the same thing in their chosen professions. 

Smart may be the necessary name of the game for students, when the GPA is the perceived yardstick of a young life, but it’s really not that important when compared to those other attributes. Past a certain age, smart will finish a crossword puzzle, and that’s about it. 

My wife and I have little readers now, and I hope lots of things for them. I hope they stay healthy, and I hope that they’re good to others. I hope they’re happy in the pursuit of their passions, I hope they work hard, and yes, I hope they’re smart as whips. 

But notice that smart isn't on the top of my list. Smart isn't the answer unto itself. Hey, I’m not saying don’t read more. Join the Book of the Month Club if it makes you feel better. Get ambitious and start your own book club. I’ll be right there with you, never completely comfortable that I’m reading enough books. 

But beware. John Milton (who wrote Paradise Lost, which I haven’t read) supposedly read so much he went blind. I can’t confirm that, but please read in moderation out there folks, just to be safe.

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