II. WHY READ
When I was younger my dad, the hearty, red-faced Keith McGhee, would read me books until I would fall asleep. Then, like the trusty father he was, he would carry me into my room and tuck me in. When looking back, and when comparing my experience to my peers, I now realize how unique my situation was. How lucky I was. My sister and I were allowed to choose anywhere between five or eight books a night. And each night, without fail, Keith, the good father, would read to us until we fell asleep. As we grew older we began to pick longer books and unintentionally realized that our bedtime (a steady eight o’clock) would be pushed back in accordance. Often my sister and I found ourselves breaking rules by sneaking in as many as five unapproved books each night, but my father, happy to see our interest in reading, would pretend he didn’t notice the growing list of picture books and short stories. He would smile, wink, and continue reading as if the four extra books had been planned all along.
Now that I am an exciting twenty (wow), I realize what a large amount of time, devotion, and patience went into getting a four and six year-old (my sister and I, respectively) ready for often what was two hours worth of reading. Having my fairshare of experience reading out loud, I now marvel at my father’s ability to speak uninterrupted for such long periods of times, especially after long days working construction and landscaping jobs where he would roast under the Tennessee heat.
When debating “Why Read,” the prospect of advancing in school and gaining knowledge is often used as a fodder to encourage students my age—twenty-year-old drunks, in the eyes of the media—to pick up a book on their own.
I think my father ultimately got his wish, as both my sister and myself have grown up to be rapid, happy, and literate readers who are capable of thinking complexly, analyzing intentionally, and setting goals that make sense within specific narratives. Our ability to take in information quickly comes down largely to the stacks of books my father would perilously cruise through each night. And, of course, most of the skills we gained lent themselves directly to academics and school work, which is something often advocated when the topic of reading is discussed. ‘Good’ readers are often ‘good’ students. Readers and individuals who excel in academic situations typically overlap because of their analytic abilities and levels of comprehension. However, as a reader who started seeing propaganda surrounding reading pretty early, it strikes me that the advocacy that is meant to encourage my generation to read is fundamentally flawed.
When debating “Why Read,” the prospect of advancing in school and gaining knowledge is often used as a fodder to encourage students my age—twenty-year-old drunks, in the eyes of the media—to pick up a book on their own. However, despite the academic aspect of my literary pursuits, I actively find that the most valuable thing I take away from reading is the ability to empathize. Not necessarily something that is described as utilitarian, empathy is often left out of discussions of “Why Read.” This is a mistake. The ability to empathize with other people is the singular, most important thing to be gained from reading.
Two years into my adulthood and I still attempt to I thank my father for the gift of literacy by doing my damndest to include reading in my schedule. Of course, there are multiple aspects that make reading after the age of seventeen difficult. Reading as an adult takes focus, and time, and the ability to step out of yourself and your anxieties. This ability to realign your world-axis to someone other than yourself, to expressedly show interest in becoming an empathetic being, is an important and integral part of being a functioning member of society. Despite it being left out of most discussions about reading, youth, and education, it is easily the most important thing I have attempted (and largely failed) to gain from my meager lifetime of word-consumption. Like David Foster Wallace says in Infinite Jest, in his neverending advocacy for collectivism over individualism:
“We all have our little solipsistic delusions, ghastly intuitions of utter singularity: that we are the only one in the house who ever fills the ice-cube tray, who unloads the clean dishwasher, who occasionally pees in the shower, whose eyelid twitches on first dates; that only we take casualness terribly seriously; that only we fashion supplication into courtesy; that only we hear the whiny pathos in a dog’s yawn, the timeless sigh in the opening of the hermetically-sealed jar, the splattered laugh in the frying egg, the minor-D lament in the vacuum’s scream; that only we feel the panic at sunset the rookie kindergartner feels at his mother’s retreat. That only we love the only-we. That only we need the only-we. Solipsism binds us together, J.D. knows. That we feel lonely in a crowd; stop not to dwell on what’s brought the crowd into being. That we are, always, faces in a crowd.”
And while all of this is true, it’s not something we as students and teachers and policy-believers often acknowledge. True, it’s almost impossible to step away from the ever-growing mountain of emails you have to send, or the paper you have to write, or the looming, anxiety inducing, deadline that’s dancing over your head, but it’s still important to remember Foster Wallace’s point: that you are not the only one experiencing these mild-examples of adult-panic. That you are not alone in the world of email-sending, workaholics. That, dare I say it, the email-sending, workaholics of the world make up a very, very small portion of humanity. That other people, with other habits, and desires, and goals—that they exist. And are breathing. And are as equally terrified as you.
Reading is wonderful not because it allows us to grow into intellectuals who can meet the deadlines the fastest, or crunch numbers the quickest, or write the best papers, but because it affords us (you, me, humanity) the unique ability of stepping outside of ourselves and appreciating each other. This is something that should be discussed when talking to college students about their reading habits. It is not easy. It is not easy to have patience with a neighbor whose dog has a tendency to bark endlessly from the late hours of the night into the early hours of the morning. Or have appreciation for the person who always has a problematic, opposing view to yours. It takes a lifetime of practice and patience. People should read not to gain knowledge, but to gain something much more difficult: appreciation and understanding. And even though I am a humble non-knowing twenty-year-old, these things strike me as—if not the point and theme of life—then at the very least an incredibly important footnote. It is the least we can do as human beings to acknowledge each other, practice that acknowledgement, and strive to be better.