One clammy afternoon this past July, an affable rising senior named George entered my classroom seeking my advice on how to answer “a particularly troublesome college admissions question.”
When George slumped down in the chair next to me, he immediately shared the alleged supplemental conundrum, an inquiry which was required to complete his application to one of the top 50 colleges in the country. When I perused the question, I smiled. It seemed simple enough to me: “In 250 words or less, discuss the work of fiction you have read on your own, which has helped you most to understand the complexity of the world.”
“Oh, George – this is a layup. Think of the possibilities. This might actually be fun to answer!”
“But Mr. Kelly,” George replied, “I haven’t read a book on my own since I was in eighth grade!” I paused – and then gave him some hopefully sage advice, which he later followed.
Now, before you are going to get on your high horse and nag about the fact that “young people today don’t read anymore,” remember, there are plenty of adults who are non-readers as well. One of them supposedly works in the Oval Office. As someone who has taught hundreds of students for over 37 years and believes that in many ways, young people today are more thoroughly prepared for the rigors of a working life than we were decades ago, you will not find any generational smugness from me.
If truth be told, when I recently waited in line at a local Dunkin’ Donuts, I was surrounded by a veritable sea of Baby Boomers who were inevitably texting or tweeting. They might have well been a covey of 16-year-olds. Unlike technology, human nature doesn’t change over time. Accordingly, if the children of today grew up sharing one landline phone with their parents and siblings and resided in communities where there were only 4-5 receptive TV stations, they would have turned out exactly as most of us did. After all, books open up light to worlds that were previously in the dark, but you have to do some heavy lifting in order to discover that.
Thus, for those of us who became readers without the distractions that currently plague our children and grandchildren, it is as if we have been allowed to drink some magic elixir, which has then provided us with the basis for a purposeful life. As both a devoted reader and educator, I have come to recognize that reading is supremely foundational. It not only develops the mind, but it nurtures the soul. Reading is imperative in introducing the essentials while providing readers with a wellspring of the possibilities. In addition, it is one of the most natural and practical ways of discovering new things.
Reading is also the indispensable ingredient in functioning in an increasingly cyber-connected society. In a world where individuality is defined both by experience and background, reading allows people to walk in the shoes of others. Most empathetic people I know these days are also avid readers. I have never yet met a bully who also cherishes what he or she reads. In the end, reading enhances the imagination and enables one to experience different cultures within the context of different time periods. Think of the world behind the wardrobe – or beyond Track 9 and ¾!
Thus, when my college-essay-challenged friend, George, sat with me on that sweltering July afternoon and asked, “What should I do?” I ended up assigning him a book that he should have read on his own, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.
“Read all 557 pages, George, and then you can answer your question.”
Just ten days later, I received the following email from him: “I read The Book Thief, Mr. K. and I loved it! I ended up answering the question and am very pleased with the result. Do you have any more good books to recommend for me to read?”
“Oh, yes, George. I have enough to last a lifetime,” I replied.