I work with a kid who just turned twenty-one and he’s an idiot. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a sweet kid, just an idiot. I’m a long way out from twenty-one and I understand that old guys are always going to think young guys are stupid. This is the way of things. But this kid claims he’s never read anything by Shakespeare. I’m not a literary snob who thinks you should only read the classics, but how can you get to twenty-one without reading anything by Shakespeare? I thought everybody who had a high school diploma would have to at least read Romeo and Juliet.
I made a joke about Doublespeak and he had no idea what I was talking about. Not only had he not been taught any Shakespeare but he hadn’t been taught 1984. Had never even heard of it or George Orwell for that matter. Again, I don’t think everything you read has to be ‘important’, but in my opinion 1984 is a top contender for most important novel of the twentieth century. Plus it’s just a good book.
If this kid is to be believed, he hasn’t been taught any books of any kind in school. That’s hard to buy, but even if true it’s not the real issue for me. That’s a failure of the public school system but it’s not a failure you have to live with. Just read a damn book. I don’t get how people can’t grasp the concept of reading on your own and this kid is not the only person I’ve met with this problem. I won’t take any excuses on the matter. I don’t care if you weren’t taught any books in school. I don’t care if you had a teacher who hated you or who was criminally boring or who made you read a book you hated. Now’s the time to read what you want.
You should definitely be reading for pleasure, maybe even guilty pleasure. You should also be reading books that move you and deal with important issues. You should occassionally read books that are challenging or above your head. Just because someone is smarter than you doesn’t make you stupid. Stupider than the author maybe but drop your ego and you might learn something. Reading books that fulfill more than one of these functions is one of life’s true joys.
I talked about this with a friend of mine who teaches English (and contributes to this blog) and he said he started giving students booklists. But which books? What books would you put on a list for a person who claims he’s never read anything? They would have to be books that have some of the big ideas going on. Literature in other words but it would also have to be an engaging read. It would need to be a good story that you can’t put down and may feel the need to read more than once. It would help if the book was infectious. One of those books you make excuses to quote or talk about and feel like you have to pass along.
And how long a list? My friends are all readers and I’m sure each of us could come up with a list of fifty ‘must reads’ without trying hard. That number may be too daunting for a novice reader though. In fact I think a top ten list is too many. I think five is a good number and I think I’m gonna make a five book reading list. I’ll ponder it for a bit and make that my next post. I am of course open to suggestions in the comments.