Refuse To Spoil: Irrelevance Is Best, Part 5

In a stack of papers called Instruction.

  • Aug
  • 28
  • 2006

Reading about characters and settings you can’t relate to is no reason to abandon the story. It may be that making the decision to stick with a story, despite the fact that it takes place in a world you can’t imagine and have no connection to, is the best decision for you. Maybe irrelevant reading is a necessary evil, like dentists and shopping malls at Christmas time.

Set Criteria

This is not to suggest that you read anything at all, indiscriminately flipping pages. Good readers also know when to stop reading and put the book back on the shelf.

Sure, read widely, but have criteria to help decide which writing will take up your time, something that is necessarily precious. Every year that I do this exercise with students, I hesitate to add “something you can relate to” on to the list of what makes good writing. I couldn’t relate to Dune in any way. Nor could I relate to Jane Eyre. To add that criterion suggests that good writing isn’t universal in any respect. What I can relate to is different than anyone else because we’ve had different life experiences. Therefore, good writing to me is not good writing to you.

To make matters worse, I don’t always want to read something I can relate to. That actually makes reading more taxing and less enjoyable sometimes. To read a story about a family that reminds me too much of my family isn’t fun. I’m sure you feel the same way about certain aspects of life. Why would I want to read about someone who lives a life like mine? I already know what that’s like because I live it. To relate to a story doesn’t even enter into my criteria.

But I have criteria, even if they are unexpressed and partially unknown. Whether or not you can relate to a book shouldn’t be the sole criteria. A lot of teenagers would disagree with me and it seems to be, in fact, their sole criteria much of the time. If they can relate to it, it’s a good book; if they can’t, it sucks.

As teachers, maybe it’s a big part of our job to avoid creating spoiled readers. That means providing irrelevant reading. We aren’t paid to entertain, because if we were we’d all have huge houses and 5 cars. We are paid to educate. Maybe that means picking strong examples of writing, regardless of how students can relate to them.

What Not To Read

A student’s decision to become a writer may happen after reading Hemmingway. A student may decide to become a social worker after reading Kesey. A future politician may get her ideas from reading Thomas Paine in 11th grade. Speaking of butterflies and hurricanes, teachers never know what kind of impact their work has.

Irrelevant reading also brings with it the further refinement of what students like. How do you know you don’t like it until you’ve tried it?

For years, sushi sounded disgusting to my brother and me. When we each finally tried it, me at a dinner a friend who had just received a commission on selling a house paid for, he on a run to Las Vegas to pick up groceries and supplies in which he encountered Jerry Seinfeld, we loved it. But we also know types of sushi we don’t like (he doesn’t like fish roe and I hate unagi).

Irrelevant reading offers to students the chance to find other things they are highly interested in and areas to avoid. Deciding what you like is as valuable as deciding what you don’t.

So the next time a student complains about how your class is meaningless and they can’t relate to what you have them read, tell them you’re helping to shrink the world, tell them they can read away selfishness, tell them about the impact their actions have on the world, tell them you’re helping them mature, tell them you’re creating discriminate readers, tell them you refuse to spoil them.

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