Read a Book You Idiot

Banned Books #4
Image by ellen.w via Flickr

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.

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About Eric Bahle

Eric Bahle stopped going to his real job so he could be a full time digital author and storyteller. He loves being in the woods with his bow or on the water in his kayak. He lives in Pennsylvania with his lovely wife and a mongrel dog. He is working on his next bestselling story.


  1. he said ‘stupider’ 🙂

    great article, i’m posting to all my media sharing networks. i know i need to read more, but also i like to tell other people they should too.

  2. I think a teacher should have handed a kid like that a list of a hundred books and told him to read five of them and write a book report on at least one of them.

    • I think for some people it becomes like a game – they almost pride themselves on not reading. It’s bizarre to me, given how easy and how much fun it is.

  3. Bravo! It kills me when someone uses their younger age as a reason why they don’t know common culture and classic references. I wasn’t alive in the 50s but I know who the Rat Pack was.

    Here are some suggestions that are not overly dense reading:
    The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
    The Lord of the Flies
    Little Women
    The Three Musketeers
    Pride and Prejudice

    • Great list there! I agree on the cultural and classic references, but just for selfish reasons I don’t see why people don’t read – it just exposes you to such interesting and exciting ideas. It keeps the brain working, and even though my brain isn’t always the most helpful thing to me, I do like to give it some exercise! 🙂

  4. He’s lying when he says he wasn’t taught any of this in school. I’m 24 and I read all you listed in school and more. What he means to say is that he was able to get through the class (tests, quizes, etc) without actually reading the text and chose that route. Which is a shame. For him. But he’s not alone, a lot of my classmates were the same way, they HATED reading. HATED it. I never understood that. They were somewhat like this child in my opinion ( – video)

    But I think having a love of reading is a gift and a blessing, not exactly a natural state. And I think it starts young – I was lucky to have parents who took time to read with me, picture books when I was young and then entire novels as I got older (a particularly found memory was my dad reading the Hobbit to me over the course of a year or so in 3rd/4th grade.) But not every parent is lucky enough to have the time to do that, which is why I feel so strongly about early literacy programs and mentorship programs that focus on young children (first to 5 they say but in a perfect world we wouldn’t need to set an upper limit). We have to teach our kids not just HOW to read but to LOVE to read.

    There’s research that shows that the benefits of a reading go far beyond your enjoyment of the text. That the actual act of reading words on a page and understanding them stimulates your mind. I wrote a blog post ( in reaction to a very interesting article on the subject: . In it, the author talks about how our shift from long, deep reading to short skimming is depriving us of the natural benefits of a ‘good read.’ And, I wish I could find a link, I read an article once that said reading promotes the connection of synapses in your brain, so actually a great way to study or learn would be to apply yourself to the topic for about 30 minutes and then spend the next hour immersing yourself in a unrelated text (a novel or short story.) I think that explains how I spent the entire week of finals of my high school senior year reading the harry potter series instead of studying (don’t laugh) and passed all my classes with flying colors.

    Anyways, I guess the point is that it really is sad this guy hasn’t read anything but the tragedy is that it’s actually quite common state. I think as a culture we’re really selling ourselves short in that regard. I truly appreciate your effort to help him find a love of books 🙂 Now if we could just find a way to take that and turn it into a program that could reach more kids, and younger kids…hmm…

    • Katie! Awesome comments, and I totally agree. I often have 5 or 6 books “in progress” for different moods, and to help escape. For example, if work is really tough I’ll gravitate towards light reading or fiction. If I’m more contemplative, I’ll read some philosophy or something meatier. Feeling a bit down, I might read something more motivating and energizing. Losing that ability would be crushing to me, so I don’t understand why people who have it don’t us it.

  5. I wonder if there is some correlation here with the ease of cheating for H.S. students in the Internet age? Back when I was in H.S. in the 80’s, if the teacher assigned us a book, we actually had to read it in order to answer test questions & write essays. There were Cliff Notes, but the better teachers knew those inside & out and were pretty good at nailing students who tried to rely on them. (Of course, I was one of the nerds who usually wanted to read the books anyway.)

    Now, for any given book, there are 90834809 ways to get papers and summaries on the web without actually reading it.

  6. “It is books that are the key to the wide world; if you can’t do anything else, read all that you can.”
    — Jane Hamilton