The Value of Reading Widely (Even If You’d Rather Not)

Discussion Post

Value of Reading Widely

Credit: Freddie Marriage – Unsplash

How do you know what you do not know?  A gap in your knowledge often means that you do not even have the questions to begin asking in order to fill that gap.  Imagine, for instance, that you have never read YA and that you, in fact, barely know what “YA” means except that “kids read it.”  But now you’ve been asked to write a paper on YA (topic of your choice), or you’ve simply found yourself at a party where everyone is talking about their favorite YA.  Where would you start?  You can’t discuss how Harry Potter changed the publishing industry, nor can you discuss the influence of Twilight on teenage girls or paranormal romance.   You can’t talk about how The Hunger Games has been used by social movements.  You’ve never heard of John Green, much less the authors who have only debuted in the last year or two.  How can you start to research YA if you don’t know that The Hunger Games ever happened, much less that it’s been influential in spheres other than the publishing world?  How can you talk about YA at a party if you’re still talking about The Hunger Games like it’s the YA book–even though it’s almost ten years old?

This is the situation that many of us tend to find ourselves in when asked to speak or write about topics with which we have barely a passing familiarity.  We might think of ourselves as “math people” or “English people” or “biology majors,” but suddenly we are supposed to analyze and comment on topics such as the effects of Twitter on how we communicate or the influence of Amazon on the U.S. economy or the ethics of AI.  If we are in a class, hopefully the instructor has chosen a reading that addresses at least several of the questions and issues that are currently being discussed by experts on that topic.  Still, we are, to put it bluntly, ignorant.  We don’t know what on earth we are talking about, much like someone who comes to a party and says, “Oh yeah!  Twilight!  That’s like the big thing right now, right?  It has sparkly werewolves!  Ridiculous, huh?”

There is, of course, no way to be prepared for every single paper or conversation.  But there is a way to try.  A way to arm ourselves with at least the fundamental background knowledge so that we can start asking the right questions to do our research.  We have to read widely. This may be scary or uncomfortable at first.  It may even be disagreeable.  And yet, reading widely is necessary.  Reading nonfiction, short stories, literary fiction, graphic novels, web comics, magazine articles, newspaper articles, medieval and Renaissance literature, picture books, YA, MG, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison –that is the way to ensure that you can attempt to find your way through every conversation.  Faced with a question such as, “Discuss how this individual contributed to African-American literature” or “What is St. Augustine’s understanding of the way to achieve salvation?” you can begin to piece your way through.  Even if you cannot answer the question immediately, you will at least know the types of questions scholars and critics have been asking.  And those will guide your own research.

Over the years, I have had to guide writers through papers on topics that are far outside my realm of expertise. I have advised writers on how to discuss subjects that cover economics, philosophy, religious studies, astronomy, computer science, neuroscience, and biology.  I have advised students on how to add more nuance and complexity to papers that are on people I have never heard of and stories I have never read.  In almost all these cases, I have known more about the paper than the person writing it, even though they were the ones who had been assigned the readings in class or had been instructed to do the research.  Why?  Because I had read an article in The Atlantic a few years back or one in The New York Times.  I remembered when TIME and Newsweek had discussed similar issues.  I once read a nonfiction book that discussed, maybe not that exact company, but one with a similar strategy.  Or I had simply read stories that were by the same author or set in the same time period, as well as literary criticism on both.  I read widely, so I knew what types of questions the writer should be asking themselves in order to get going.

None of this is to say that I am a master of every subject, nor that I am more qualified to speak on subjects than the people who are actively engaged in the fields and disciplines relevant to those subjects.  I am not.  In fact, if I were to speak to an actual astronomer and not a self-identified “English person” struggling through an astronomy class, my own ignorance would become immediately clear.  My skills do not lie in comprehensive subject mastery but instead in the ability to make connections and ask questions.  That is what reading widely gifts–the starting point.  And that’s an incredibly valuable thing to have when you’re feeling confused and stressed and like you must be stupid because how is everyone else completing this assignment?

Many of us know exactly what we like when we read.  We stick to certain age groups or certain genres because we want to read for fun and for entertainment.  Reading a book about the Vietnam War or an article about how technology has changed speech patterns may seem boring if not outright painful.  Even switching from YA to MG might seem like a bad idea if we know we love YA but have felt like many of the MG we have read just weren’t that good.  Still, I would argue that there is value stepping outside our comfort zones.  We may have to search awhile to find a nonfiction author who writes lively and engaging prose, making history seem like a story.  Or an author who writes upper-MG that speaks to us  more than a lower-MG.  That’s okay.  The search is valuable, too.  It teaches us what might work for us and what might work for others.  And it introduces us to ideas that we may have never known were out there.

Life tends to throw curve balls.  We are asked to choose our majors and decide our destinies at the age of eighteen.  But most of us cannot really predict where we will be in the future.  Much like the famous story of Steve Jobs using a calligraphy class to make his fonts beautiful, our stories will be full of surprises and unexpected connections.  Why not help build those connections by reading widely?

17 thoughts on “The Value of Reading Widely (Even If You’d Rather Not)

  1. Stephanie says:

    Great post! I completely agree! I’m definitely more of an English/History-brained person, but that doesn’t stop me from reading books about astrophysics or politics.


  2. Ravenclaw Book Club says:

    I love reading widely, not to be able to have certain conversations but just because I’m curious about a lot of things. I adore non-fiction, and when I find a book that sounds really unique and like it teaches the stranger, more uncommon kind of knowledge, I’m very likely to grab it!


    • Krysta says:

      Haha, that’s true. I don’t think I generally sit down and decide to read things just in case they come into conversation! Still, it’s good to have a background that allows you to think critically on a variety of topics.

      I like non-fiction, too, though sometimes I read a very dry one and see why someone might try nonfiction, pick up one, and decide it’s not for them! They might think the dull ones are representative. 😦


  3. Rosie Amber says:

    I push myself to read widely, then every so often I have a need to centre myself and return to my favourite genre, just to get some balance back. Then I can tackle other books again.


  4. lucindablogs says:

    I love reading widely and I’ve found that by participating in reading challenges I’ve been pushed even further. Who knew I would enjoy food memoirs so much?! I would never have read anything like that without the read harder challenge.


  5. camilleareads says:

    This is such a good post! Many people tend to look down their nose on YA which is a shame because there are many, many good books addressing social issues. I used to read a lot of classics and historical fiction, only venturing into YA, fantasy, and crime recently. My next goal is to get into nonfiction.


  6. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    hehehe if only it had been the werewolves that were sparkly 😉 (no- wait- I’m kidding- don’t quote me on that 😉 ) I’m an info junkie, so this topic is right up my street! And yes a million times over to exploring different avenues and reading more widely. Wonderful piece!


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