What if I told you there was a fun, free, easy way to meaningfully hack the social caste system? That, in ten minutes a day, you could transform yourself from “rough around the edges” to a someone that commands interest, respect, advancement, advantage, opportunity, and even love. It’s true, and I’ll unpack all of that, I promise. That hack is called: reading books.
Couple things: first off, if you’re reading this blog, I’m preaching to the choir; you’re probably willing to take more of a reading beating than the average bear, and I commend you. Still a topic worth homage.
Second, why reading and not “watching documentaries”? That’s everyone’s excuse not to read now. I love documentaries, and they’re so good these days — absolutely no disrespect. It’s a great way to know new things. Knowing new things, though, is a bit of a red herring! I mean, we have the Internet to prove that we’re really not that committed to knowing new things, and when we are, we simply look them up. I don’t want to read a book about how many times Bill O’Reilly has had to settle out of court for sexual misconduct allegations just so I can get through dinner with my in-laws — it’s on Wikipedia, via my phone. The simple knowing of new things is easily conflatable with reading, but in the words of my beloved Cardiopulmonary Tech Phase One instructor from 2005: don’t get it twisted.
Reading is only peripherally about knowing new things — one of the perks, let’s say. And so third, let me mention that in a digitally trending society where, first, it’s become increasingly easy to know things, and then we become hyper-focused on knowing things “at” one another, and then the ways that we align with where we go to get things to know at one another is increasingly problematic, and the platforms upon which we display our knowledge are increasingly performative and reductionist, it’s easy to lose sight of what the point of knowing things is in the first place.
Why would anyone read actual books anymore, when they could just Google or watch a documentary? And even if they do, why would they read books that don’t directly contribute to their ability to know more things on subjects on which they’re likely to engage with others? I meet lots of people who’ve either never made friends with books for books’ sake, or else they steer clear of books that aren’t strictly functional. And that’s fine I suppose, if we conceptualize ourselves as hollow receptacles in need of stuff to know, with which to strategically fill ourselves. And there’s great pleasure in knowing new things, grasping with greater confidence some vocabulary of ideas relative to a subject. I celebrate that.
But if reading to know new things is only a perk, then what’s the main event? Well, here’s an interesting observation: I used to teach Freshman Comp, and my 18-22 year old students generally came hardwired to either express themselves eloquently, or not, and the majority not. I hope the course did some good and instilled in everyone the importance of picking one thing to say and saying it clearly — maybe, maybe not. But that minority of students who came hardwired to function gracefully on the realm of the abstract tended to have one thing in common: they grew up reading, and they read for pleasure. I conferenced with them, as a function of the course, and was always interested to pick the brains of the students who were, already, strong writers. I discovered that it really didn’t matter what they read. Some of them liked science books, some of them liked fiction, some of them liked graphic novels for chrissakes.
Conversely, the students who were not hardwired to function gracefully in the abstract — the majority of non-readers-for-pleasure — interpreted both reading, but especially writing, as a chore. I mean, Freshman Comp simply is a chore, there’s no getting around that, but it was the type of chore they regarded as having very little to do with themselves and their interests, which feels extra oppressive.
Now, I wasn’t able to gather much more data than that. Like I said, the readers were a minority, and I didn’t teach for that long because I actually need money to live. And it only demonstrates correlation, not causality. Did the good writers read because they had good reading comprehension inherently, or did they have good reading comprehension because they read?
In childhood, I’m not sure it really matters, because we’re so receptive and malleable regardless of our genetic/environmental potential. Throw some spaghetti at that wall and some will stick. Most of us will never grow up to be world class runners but we all gotta walk, at least.
As adults, we’re more set in our ways, but I don’t think it’s too late. Best case scenario, we receive a prison sentence or a nuclear winter, to finally settle down with books and realize: wow, I love this. Kidding, but our lives are fast paced enough that we’re unlikely to read through sheer boredom, as was the case for most of literate human history. Here’s where a book in the hand is worth two in the bush — if we put off reading because we think it needs to be edifying or New York Times bestselling or functional or whatever, get over it. Just go to a bookstore and get something.
I grew up reading, voraciously, nothing that anyone would be impressed by. I mean, I was impressed, obviously, but I think I’ve read like two classics or something, of my own volition. No, maybe five. And a bunch of shit in grad school that was in some sense canonical, and a little hit or miss with me. Long story short, I’ve formed this hypothesis: it doesn’t matter what you read. This will be a super offensive statement to the actual readers out there, so I want to qualify it by saying it’s in keeping with the 80/20 rule: you get 80% of the gains — your ability to function gracefully in the abstract — by putting in 20% of the work — just literally reading anything. Anything. Beach blanket romance, science fiction, fantasy, short stories, erotica, whatever. Pages full of any kind of words. And then you get the other 20% of the gains by putting in the other 80% of the work, which is your deepening dive into specific topics.
Now, this is an important hypothesis because we dither about injustice a lot these days, in terms of digital literacy, access to opportunities, education level of family of origin, etc. and so forth, and rightly so. Here’s something: I recently created a sort of “underground railroad” for students who’d failed New Mexico State CDL skills testing three times — the max allowed — and got them connected with resources in Arizona, so they wouldn’t have to wait a calendar year to try again. I was driving with a very frustrated student back from Tucson, where she’d failed her first test for an Arizona permit, and we were talking about specific test questions. It became clear that her reading comprehension was simply quite low. I asked about reading, in her family of origin, and she said “nope”, unsurprisingly.
This student went on to permit test again and again and frustratingly again, in Arizona; finally got her permit, aced her skills test, and is currently out on the road in her 18-wheeler, dodging race riots or whatever, and I’m very very proud to have contributed to her success in that regard.
Related: I met a woman, on an airplane, who spent her entire career as an elementary-ed English teacher, and who now serves as some kind of subject matter expert on a board examining reading and its significance in childhood populations. She told me an interesting thing: kids who grow up with film-specialized brains struggle to apprehend “scene” in text. This is not like a preference issue, but a neuro issue.
I found this fascinating, because I already knew that film (TV, movies) can be really problematic for kids on other, more obvious levels — the obesity link, the inability to distinguish fantasy from reality, the propensity to accept violence and sexually charged situations as unremarkable, the constant colonization of advertising, etc. And it’s like, my god — why would any child read a book if they can watch a flickering, shrieking screen. I get that. But the neuro thing — this was her assessment — that this early exposure to film can literally subdue a child’s potential for reading comprehension specifically on the level of forming “scene” in one’s imagination — well, it alarmed me but it also made a lot of sense.
Back to this CDL student, and our talks about specific permit questions — it was obvious to me that she got effectively stuck at the level of words. I mean, she knew words and what they meant, but she simply read them, she didn’t read THROUGH them. So to the extent that any wording was changed from what she’d studied, she was bamboozled.
Fuck! What a disadvantage! Can you imagine? This, in my mind, is a real example of how reading anything — the most mindless, fifty cent Goodwill whatever, earlier on— could have made a meaningful, incalculable, positive difference in her life. And this is an intervention that wouldn’t have required more income, more internet, more privilege, a better neighborhood, a better parent, anything.
But, her family of origin didn’t read, which often does cohere with all those signifiers of social caste. I’m lucky — my parents read aloud to one another and to us, as toddlers, before we could read; kept on reading to us as we learned to read; encouraged us to read out loud to them once we could read; discussed the ideas we read with us; took us to bookstores to buy more ammo; and just generally made reading the deal. Incidentally, none of this has to correspond to wealth, leisure, or level of parental education, although practically speaking it often does. My brother and I were the barefooted brats of nomadic oil field parents — we lived in apartments, converted school buses, underground bunkers, shabby fixer ups, and for a year, a straight up tent in Wyoming; we played on hay bales and cracked concrete basketball courts, and went on to attend possibly the shittiest public school system in existence, on the Navajo Reservation.
But in terms of our learned grace in functioning on the abstract, it didn’t slow us down one bit — because we read. My brother turned out to be more of an overt success story than me — he’s a successful vegan restauranteur in Seattle (Kati Vegan Thai, if you’re ever in town), with a lucrative programming job, his own game development company, many published games and apps to his credit, and his own programming language, used by many other programmers. I’m this meta-curious type trucker-slash-driving instructor gal with a blog and some original music — oh, and a longstanding side gig as an audiobook narrator. I mean, you can’t look at me as an example of “hacking the social caste system” and feel very inspired, probably, but individual results may vary. Most importantly, I’m happy with my life, and I feel perfectly comfortable functioning on really any social level, amidst any type of crowd, in whatever tax bracket, and able to express as well as consume in the abstract.
The abstract is exactly where we aren’t interested in functioning, mostly, but think about it: do you want your opportunities, your self, to be limited to what’s in arm’s reach, or within a car drive radius? If not, then say hello to the abstract — the ability to convey yourself through space and time, to receive others through space and time, a level of connectedness with a much bigger footprint that lasts longer, and which will aid your ascent through any dominance hierarchy you choose.
I want to get away from a position of reading advocacy IN ORDER TO accomplish this, that, or the other, though — which is clearly important — and talk about reading for its own sake. It is so fucking cool! Really, you’re missing the boat if you don’t check it out. Reading and writing, kissing cousins, represent human telepathy, essentially. What if you could sit down and have a beer with the smartest, nicest, most interesting people that have ever lived, from all around the world? You can! What if you could get lost in the most spellbinding stories, with a zero percent chance that the casting director fucked up? Every single character looks and acts and moves exactly as they’re supposed to — because reading is a co-creative experience, and your own mind polishes the production just right. What if you could never be lonely again? What makes you think that hanging out with real people is any more intimate than being wholly included into another person’s inner world?
And here’s another thought: have you ever noticed the difference between a pet that no one’s ever really loved, versus a pet that’s had all of its little ways appreciated, noticed, nurtured over time? That pet, in the second circumstance, will be more “there”, more vibrant, more of a person. That’s how we all are — we’re full of switches just waiting to be turned on. Life, and other people, turn on some of our switches, but you can turn on exponentially more of those switches by reading. And the more switches you turn on, the more “there” you are for people you meet. Remember in the first paragraph when I enticed you with the notion that this life hack can make you more lovable? Well I wasn’t kidding. It’s well known that the easiest way to get over a crush is to get to know them, which is usually like hitting a wall. We all want romantic love, and what that really means is someone with which to have an enduring conversation. Make yourself a mansion of many rooms for the people who love you, or who haven’t met you yet but will love you.
But why not just mansion-up by watching Netflix too, you say? Well I’m not sure that’s true. I’m 100% certain I could do a double-blind conversation test, with a person on the one hand who consumes tons of film media, and a person on the other hand who reads tons of books, and I’d know exactly who was who. I mean, just the fact that reading violent scenes, versus passively watching violent scenes, seems to have an entirely different and more benign effect on the consumer is interesting, right? It’s almost like books are whole foods, and film is like processed foods — much more addictive and prone to overwhelming our system. We have natural safeguards in place for the ways we apprehend information when we read — it’s nearly impossible to destabilize ourselves through reading (although I’m sure it’s happened).
Unfortunately, the people who need reading most, often come from families of origin that read least, and this blog can’t do much to fix that. And like I said, the people who read this far didn’t need the blog to know that reading is rad. So there’s very little we can do, but what we can do is gift books to one another. Personally, when I loan out a book and don’t get it back, I’m happy to buy another copy because, hey — that’s one more good book in the world.