Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Why I read...

In 1992 I was a half-committed, half-serious pre-med student struggling through organic chemistry and physics. I was clinging to the "dream" of going to medical school and becoming a compassionate and rich doctor.  Though I'd made my share of mistakes in college, I was still working towards that elusive goal.

Then Dad died.

I'm pretty sure I got through that semester on the charity of my instructors. Keri went to class for me and took notes (we were only dating, but she was, even then, a wonderful friend), and I really did try to do the work, but I was very distracted by the events of April 1992. When I went back to school that fall, I really (I mean REALLY) struggled, and my instructors were no longer cutting me any slack. I was in a death spiral, so I got out of school entirely.

When it was time to get back in school a few semesters later, I took what I figured was a "gimme" course called "Great Books." It was a non-majors English course in which we read Odyssey, Jane Eyre, The Bean Trees, and a couple of other books I've forgotten. I realized in that course that I was doing something that #1) I loved, and #2) I was pretty good at. So... I kept doing it.

I don't remember a time when I wasn't a pretty committed and enthusiastic reader. It was, from early in my life, a big part of the way I defined myself-- how I identified myself. Even when I was heavily involved in other things, I was reading widely and deeply (or at least I assumed I was reading deeply-- who knows). 

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about why I read. There are several reasons I read these days:
  1. It's what I do for a living. When I assign students to read Beowulf or whatever, I have to (get to) read it too. It would be irresponsible for me not to re-read books I'm teaching-- even if I've read them many, many times. So, I read to teach.
  2. Some books are safety. Books like The Bean Trees or Light in August or Speaker for the Dead or Bleak House are familiar territory and their pleasures are well known to me. Like a warm cinnamon roll and a glass of ice-cold milk, a familiar book is feel-good food for the soul. Sometimes I'm reading because it tastes good.
  3. I read to see what's over the next rise. When I was growing up, sometimes Dad would take us on a drive to "parts unknown" to see whatever there was to see around the next bend. That sense of exploration has rooted in me, but more in a literary sense that in a Sunday drive sense. Sometimes I wander through the library in parts of the stacks that I normally don't consider, picking up books and reading first pages. Other times I listen in to hear what others are reading that I haven't read (or haven't even heard of, often). Sometimes I discover things that delight and amaze me.  The Sparrow was one such discovery. The Eyre Affair was another.
  4. Closely related to #1, though different enough, I think, to warrant it's own place on this list is the reading I do to expand my students' minds. Sometimes, as with Beowulf or whatever, I assign works that I'm very familiar with. In other instances, I read to discover something that fills a niche in a course I'm designing. For example, when I was first hired at CSI, the chair of my department assigned me to teach "Survey of World Mythology." Though I had pretty good ideas about "western" mythologies, I had to read to figure out what I should teach from other traditions (eastern, native american, african, etc.). 
  5. I read for self improvement. I read texts that I hope will make be a better man, a better husband, a better father, etc. 
  6. I read to my children. Together we've read Harry Potter (surprise), Lemony Snicket, Fablehaven, and Ender's Game (not to mention Bernstain Bears, Dr. Seuss, Toot & Puddle, etc.)
So, what do you read, and why?


Murphy's New York-a-go-go said...

Oh Clark, I love this post! I can't read right now because my back injury has shot my concentration. It's so cool to remember that they'll be there when the brain is working again. Thanks for reminding me.

Peetiedy said...

I read all sorts of things. I get kick out of children books. It is so fun to watch Alexis and Nathans face while reading them a story. I have always loved to read. At the reunion Tad asked Alexis if mommy reads a lot. She just laughed and said "All the time." I was listening with book in hand. I love to read because it is a way to get away without leaving my home. I love learning and the lessons that can be learned from reading.

Murphy's New York-a-go-go said...

Hi Clark,
Good news! Laser seems to be working! Bad news, Internet is down at my house, so no blog fun for awhile, sigh. Thanks for asking. A gawker, huh? That made me laugh. Actually, I'm still laughing as I type this. Take Care. Have a good weekend.

Patricia Murphy, a resident of said...

Dear Dr. Draney:
I see your blog is suffering. Freshman papers, perhaps? I know I've got two sets that are going to give me a few more gray hairs. I'm really writing to tell you that I just cannot for the life of me figure out what the demeanor comment meant (yeah, I get the quotation marks, but whatever could have been amiss back then with the Draney demeanor? Were you disemboweling people in your office and nobody told me?). When you dig your way out of papers, you'll have to remind me of a conversation(s) I've apparently forgotten. 'Til then, take care and try not to grimace too much when you read those sentence-facsimiles.