Sunday, April 20, 2014


For the remaining three weeks of the semester, my ENG 100 students and I will be reading, writing about, and discussing Thomas Sterner's book, The Practicing Mind. Although the book is quite slim, and we are taking our time with it, some students were offering some mock-groans and half-joking complaints last week when I reminded them that their final essay assignment would require reading an entire book. When students resist "longer" reading assignments, I tend to respond with snarky lines like, "It's college--you might have to read a book now and then," but my snarkiness is really a cover for a mix of anxieties surrounding the future of book-reading in our society. How often are students asked to read real books (not textbooks) for college classes? How often, when asked, do they actually read them? And does it matter? Is deep, sustained, close reading a mental exercise worth fighting for?

A significant minority of my students do enjoy reading, and thank God for that. But the vast majority of them do not consider themselves "readers", though they are quite literate. From my point of view, going to college and not reading would be like going to the gym and not working out. What's the point? You don't get fit just because you paid for your gym membership and you showed up once in awhile. You have to actually lift some weights, get on the treadmill, jump in the pool, etc. Reading--like weight-lifting, running, and swimming--can actually be fun if you do it often enough. Go for a run once a year, and you'll always be out of breath. Run every day and you'll start to enjoy it; in fact you'll feel weird whenever you don't run. The same principle applies to reading. Granted, there are other thinking-exercises at college besides reading that will improve one's intellectual fitness, but reading is one that you can practice for the rest of your life, no matter what you end up doing.

Sterner's book argues that we often fixate too much on our goals and not enough on the processes we engage in as we work towards them (our practice). Applied to reading, I feel this is the case for many students. The goal is always to be done reading, never to be doing it. Thinking this way makes the reading seem like an obstacle that one must overcome before one can pass a test or write a paper. The trick is to realize that the process of reading itself is the main thing; doing it--deliberately, thoughtfully, actively--makes you a better thinker.

To broaden the scope of the discussion, consider how many students think about college itself as the "thing in the way" of their career goal, rather than a set of inherently empowering practices. How many students want college to be done with already, even though they've barely begun? Sterner observes that this mindset provokes anxiety--we are intimidated by all we have not yet achieved. Instead, we should try to understand the usefulness of what we are currently engaged in. Reading (and other forms of study) would then become not burdens, but opportunities for intellectual exercise--acts that, each day, make us stronger where it counts the most.

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