What Not To Read

I’ve been thinking about my “What Not to Read” idea. Fret not: I’m not serious about submitting a proposal to TLC. My work, however, involves a lot of reading and a lot of convincing other people to read. Sometimes parents inform me that there’s no reason for the low Language Arts mark because their child reads all the time. When we get down to the nitty-gritty, though, their 17-year-old is reading books that are meant for Grade 5 students, and it’s taking them a month to work through one Dolphin Diary.

I use a food analogy: An infant thrives on milk, but an adult man couldn’t possibly consume enough milk to survive. Larger brains need more food and better food. Lionel Messi wouldn’t be famous if he subsisted on a monthly meal of Poptarts and Kraft Dinner.

The parents often think I’m just being critical of them. I suppose I am, in some ways. If the parents isn’t able to read enough to assess the level of a book, I’m not sure what faith leads them to expect their child will read well enough to get an above-average mark.

In “What Not to Wear”, the victims have to decide what they want from their clothes: comfort? Respect? Self-confidence?  What’s the purpose in dressing a certain way?  I like to ask the students what their purpose in reading might be. Because they’re my students (people who are good with language don’t often use a tutor), they usually reply, “To get good marks in school.”

For me, reading is for discovering new pathways, illuminating the things in dark corners, seeding a new crop. Reading is for comforting or deliberately depressing myself. Not everything I read has to be brilliant and stimulating; literary trash is de rigueur when hours must be whiled away or reality must be avoided. In order to achieve all these things, I need an assortment of books (yes, need) on hand, and I also need to know where to get more in short order. The shelves should be well-stocked with a variety.

Have you ever seen a five-star restaurant that has nothing but 25 types of cereal in the kitchen?

I’ve been working on a short list to give to parents and students, so it’s easier for them to make choices while standing in front of the (overwhelming) shelves—or, worse, browsing the latest Scholastic catalogue.

1. Books from an unlimited series

Here are yer 25 boxes of cereal. They’re all cornflakes, too.

If the series doesn’t have a clear ending, the purpose is not to offer you something new and exciting.

Of course, just because there’s a clear ending doesn’t make it a good series, but if someone has planned out, say, seven books for the telling of a wizard’s journey to adulthood, there’s a better chance that the author has a reasonable story to tell.

2. Classics that don’t seem very interesting to the reader

To paraphrase a wise man, tenacious ≠ worthy.

Not everyone likes the same subjects. There’s always a reason for these books being popular for so long, but reading a book just because it’s old is like buying something you don’t like just because it’s expensive.

3. Books that pander to consumers rather than readers

There’s a difference between research and shopping. The publisher that can sell things through a “book” rather than a “catalogue” has too much disposable income.

4. Books that come with a “free gift”

If you want a pink flamingo pen with a feathery top, go buy one; if you want a book to read, don’t buy a pink flamingo pen with a feathery top.

5. Books that promise to fix something

The way that person is getting rich is by having you buy his “how to get rich quick” book. Doctors who tell you a sure-fire way to get your baby to sleep through the night… well, they’re probably sleeping well in between their silk sheets while you wear a path in the carpet’s nap.

Ideas are always useful; promises made by someone who gets money out of the deal will not contribute to critical thinking.

6. Anything published solely by Scholastic

They have no standards.

If a reputable publisher has already put the book out, go ahead and order it from Scholastic.

7. Newspaper articles that have an emotion in the headline (e.g. “Widow Saddened by Husband’s Murder”)

That’s not news.

8. Anything written by Jane Austen…
…even if it comes with a pink flamingo pen with a feathery top.

So, to answer a friend’s question, reading Fifty Shades of Grey is perfectly acceptable if it fits in with your reading purposes. There are many people who can’t put their sexual fantasies into words and they’re desperate for the vocabulary… and there are probably people out there who are intentionally looking for excessively long sentences and overuse of conjunctions.

I would hope that one of the things parents teach their children is how to find the books they need or want—give them the five-star restaurant food rather than just milk or just cereal. Teach children to avoid the literary McDonalds whenever possible. Teach them to choose the nutrients their brain craves, and don’t forget to feed your own brain.

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