I teach Composition 101 at UMass Boston. One of my students asked when they would see some of my writing, so I decided to write my answer to their Assignment #1 prompt.
Here is the prompt:
In this narrative-style essay, you will reflect on your own history as a writer, a reader or a speaker. I want you to think back to one or two important moments in your life regarding writing or reading.
• What has occurred in your life that has changed the way you think about and experience writing, reading or speaking?
• How has this event affected your experience with writing, reading, or speaking?
• What did you learn from this experience that would be appropriate to share with others?
• Why does this event stand out over all others?
Tell the reader a high-quality, meaningful story in the form of a narrative essay that provides the reader something to think about regarding your experience with writing, reading, or speaking.
And here is my essay:
Why do I want you to read?
There are two answers to that question. There is the obvious answer that involves the drama of whether Harry will hook up with Hermione, whether Emma Bovary will listen to the speeches given at the agricultural fair while she sits next to a man who doesn’t love her or whether you make the connections between Nabokov’s Lolita and the song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by the Police.
Those adventures are without compare. Movies don’t do them justice. It truly is a case of you have to be there.
But then there is the other answer. The one that sometimes keeps me up at night, knowing that I am not doing enough to convince people that reading is beneficial.
My day starts with a quick glance at email, and if there are no fires to put out, I quickly move on to Reddit where I see whether there are literal fires around the world, as well as looking at political cartoons, cats riding vacuums and discussions over what pictures qualify as not safe for work. I then move on to The New York Times and The Guardian to read quality reporting and opinion pieces that help me make better sense of the current political scene.
I acknowledge I create my own reality. My zeitgeist is at least partially pre-fabricated by my choices. But those choices are mine and have been shaped by time and experience. Throughout the day I add in message boards like the Straight Dope where hidden underneath lazy ad hominem attacks (which I am getting better at recognizing) there is great debate going on. I listen to podcasts about baseball and cultural icons and science and literature. I watch TEDx videos that discuss procrastination while I should be doing something else.
But, people who don’t read don’t share those experiences. Sure, non-readers can listen to podcasts and watch YouTube but, be honest, is it likely that someone who shirks reading is listening to podcasts about the fine points of the effect of skin color on the roles that actors are offered in Hollywood? Based on my experience, the answer is no.
Because I read, for pleasure, for work, and because I am addicted, I believe that I can make better sense of this world. When I read something I find questionable, I purposely go seek out multiple sources and usually find that the facts lie somewhere in the middle. When a political ad comes on tv, I listen carefully to the words that are said, and more importantly the words that are not said. Very simply, because I read, I don’t have to depend on other people to tell me the truth. Because they often won’t.
The people I know who don’t read, seldom say that their life is great. Or even very good. Oftentimes, the people who brag about not reading also complain about how life isn’t fair. Now this is not an infomercial about how if you read 45 minutes a day you will become rich. The people who make offers like that are not aiming for critical readers and thinkers. They are aiming for victims who will accept what they are told.
And why not? If one has a skill and can improve their own life by taking advantage of others who willingly submit, why wouldn’t they? I truly hope that I don’t do that. I hope that as a result of my reading I understand the effect that exploitation and bullying have, not just on the people I know, but on the people around the world and since the history of the spoken word.
Because I read, I know that I live a better life. My childhood is sadly not different enough to be unique, but suffice it to say, I could come up with myriad excuses as to why I would not be successful and would not be a living a life that I very gladly say is great. But instead, I fell in love with reading from a very early age, at first encouraged by others, but soon after, as an escape and a refuge from the reality of my childhood.
At any point I could have stopped and been mad at the world, but instead I let Dr. Seuss delight me (he still does), and Stephen King scare me (he still does). And the moment that the Harry Potter-verse reached my awareness, I was onboard. I was at Walmart at midnight for the release of the last two books, surrounded by others who wanted to devour every word, and yet never wanting to see the words The End.
But I have also taught a number of students in America and in Tanzania who take pride in the fact that they don’t read. And that makes me sad. Everyone has brilliant thoughts to share with this world. But without reading and engaging in critical thinking and increasing one’s vocabulary, instead by allowing others to dissect discussions for you and tell you that this time history will not repeat itself and insisting that if a man claims he is rich, he is a great businessman and leader regardless of his own personal history, of which there are many books written, those thoughts are never going to shine as bright as they otherwise might. And that hurts the world.
I do not yet have the ability to physically travel to a planet that is inhabited by a solitary lamplighter, but oh, how I long for that opportunity. And there are so many people in this world, who I know would, given the chance, love to join me. Although there is a movie that tells you what to see, without having that book in my hand, and my thoughts which are shaped and elevated by reading the words of wise women and men, along with ignorant fools who I am able to recognize, I know that we simply will not make that journey together.
-written by K.A. MacDonald, September 29, 2018