Read Away Selfishness: Irrelevance Is Best, Part 2

In a stack of papers called Instruction.

  • Aug
  • 18
  • 2006

When Krakatoa exploded in 1883, the telegraph reported that news around the world faster than any catastrophe had been reported before. Because of that, people began to see the world extend beyond their town or city or country. The idea of a selfish view of the world, that the only things worth knowing about happen to me, becomes harder to embrace when we know about life elsewhere. Information connected people then and it still does today.

What Can Reading Do?

If it’s true that reading about something completely new can begin to tear down selfishness and urge a view of the world that shows how we are all connected, then there seem to be essentially two ways of looking at the type of reading we should engage in:

  1. read only stuff related to your day-to-day activities, keeping the rest of the world mysterious and abstract, but providing an almost certain joy in the experience;
  2. read more irrelevant stuff, shrinking the world as you become familiar with information previously unknown, but risking a boring read in the process.

Option 2 appeals more to me. Setting aside immediate gratification for a long-term gain is a sign of maturity and one I’d like to help my students select. And it’s just as likely that you’ll read something incredibly captivating that you never knew existed as it is that you’ll read a complete snooze-fest.

Option 1 sounds frightening.

It’s a formula for ensuring even more miscommunication, misunderstanding, and violence. It’s much easier to perpetuate violence against people you’ve never met, don’t know, and who aren’t really human to you. Once you get to know Bob (he has a wife [Nora] and a son [Peter, who always likes to spell his name lowercase and with an “i”: pieter], a mother [Barbara] who was never satisfied with Bob’s job [Bob is a tech support operator for a computer company] and still gives him a bit of a hard time about it [“is this what you want to do with your life?”] every Saturday when family gathers for dinner at her place, and Nora doesn’t work, doesn’t have a degree, and doesn’t have an interest in doing anything if it doesn’t involve her family or her house) it’s much more difficult to do him any harm.

Option 2 sounds comforting.

Also, the smaller this world gets, the more we know each other. The more we know each other, the more reason we have to do good things in the world.

I heard of a woman who a serial killer set free. She was kidnapped and tortured, sadly, but he let her go, an otherwise unheard of act for this creep. By appealing to him during her capture, explaining who she is, the people she knows, and talking to him about his life, she built her persona in his mind and he couldn’t kill her. She shrunk the world by telling him irrelevant things.

I have been convinced for many years that the biggest cause for violence in this world is misunderstanding over religion. Shrink the world and clear up those misunderstandings. Read more irrelevant things. It may be like eating your vegetables at first, but it’ll get easier.

Monday: Impact


1. Laurie says:

[8/18/2006 - 3:53 pm]

I think most educated adults understand the need to shrink the world in the way you have described. However, I think most of our students read so little that I feel that my job as their English teacher is to get them to find that joy in reading. Then, and only then, will they be able to tackle reading texts that don’t immediately interest them. That kind of reading is so much higher on the interest and ability scale that I find it akin to trying to teach a 10-year-old to drive.

2. Todd says:

[8/18/2006 - 4:35 pm]

If I can get students to see that reading can be a joy – the state standards be damned – I’ve done my job. Sure, start with high-interest texts. I agree with you in terms of the job of an English teacher.

But I also wonder if part of our job is to teach that reading isn’t always about pleasure. Sometimes it’s about exposure and information gathering. It’s not always a hedonistic activity (hyperbole, yes, but you get my point). Not every single thing we read is for the joy of it.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s painful to read, by the way. It just means that there are other reasons. I have never read the newspaper because I truly enjoy the prose found there. I’ve done it because I want to know things, I want to find out what’s happening in the world. It’s not an enjoyable experience, nor is it a terrible one. It’s not about the emotion evoked; it’s about the content.

3. Laurie says:

[8/18/2006 - 9:25 pm]

I guess I was thinking of it from a literary standpoint about how we continue to shove the “classics” in front of kids because that is what we teach. I think that this is part of what stops them from seeing reading is something they need to or want to do.

They do read for information: cheat codes for video info, myspace, how to find the perfect jeans, how to make chili macncheese. I guess I want them to see literature in that continuum of what we read. That is not the prevalent attitude.