Required Reading, Not Raving: A Call to Like What You Really Like

WaldenEver made this classic mistake? You’re talking with someone, and in an effort to impress or connect, you pretend to know something you’re not really sure about, as in this scene from Agent Cody Banks (major throwback):

Are those books? -Frankie Muniz

Yeah. -Hilary Duff

I love books. I could read all day. Love ‘em. -FM

Great. Then you’re in the right place. -HD

I especially love T.S. Eliot. -FM

You do? -HD

I think she’s amazing. You know, the way she captures the female perspective. It’s just so female-like. It’s great. -FM

T.S. Eliot is a man. -HD

I remember laughing at this scene years ago when I was about 11 and had no idea who T.S. Eliot even was. The humor is obviously in the universality of Frankie Muniz’s mistake. We’ve all been there.

College is a breeding ground for this sort of thing. Nobody wants to admit they don’t know something, so we develop all sorts of tactics to hide our ignorance and protect ourselves from the sometimes very real consequences of not knowing. (Read more about this in a great little book called, appropriately, I Don’t Know). I’m sure the pressures are different in every college, but I have a little experience in MU’s J-School and, currently, in Arts & Sciences, and…it’s pretty bad.

Besides just not knowing, I would argue that not liking exerts similar pressures and fears of the scathing judgment (real or imagined) of our peers and professors. Especially when it comes to books.

It goes without saying–though it sometimes is said–that if you don’t appreciate, revere, and enjoy (Insert Classic Title), you are stupid/ignorant/lazy/shallow and your faulty opinion will not be considered, thank you.

If this is so, I guess I’m disqualified from the discussion when it comes to Thoreau’s Walden, the current required reading for my American Lit class. “Hate” is a strong word, but let’s just say my favorite thing about it is the red leaf on my copy’s pretty cover.

At first I felt bad about this, almost guilty. I skimmed and skimmed the pages, searching for something I could get behind. But somewhere between the obscure literary references and Thoreau’s rapturous love for his bean fields, I gave up.

This Tuesday, my professor arrived a little late, as usual, plunked her stuff down on the table, and began with a simple question:

“so, how are we feeling about Thoreau?”

No one answered, obviously too awed by his brilliance to form a coherent thought.

She tried again. “What kind of person is Thoreau? What is he like?”

A few seconds passed. I decided to be honest. Maybe everyone else loved the guy, but I wasn’t feeling it. “He’s…critical,” I offered.

“Pretentious,” someone added.




I needn’t have worried. The professor laughed. “I’d agree with all of that.”

We laughed too. After that little introduction, I, for one, felt more willing to listen & participate. We figured out why Thoreau annoyed us so, and also discussed why we’re reading his book in the first place. I think we all gained much more from this than if we’d simply pretended to be impressed & inspired by his genius. Of course, some people are inspired by his work, and that’s fine too. But pretending to like something just because it’s A Classic? Foolish. Bowing to the majority, and for what?

I just wonder: what if the tiny moment of frankness in my class happened more often? It’s funny– and pathetic– how rare honesty can be in academic settings. I’ve had many a moment in creative writing courses where we read a story that no one understands. At all. But we’re all afraid to say so, so no one does, and I leave class thinking the lady in the red hat symbolizes something she really, really doesn’t, and it’s all a big waste of time.

I’ve realized that I’m willing to look a little unsophisticated if it means I’m actually learning something.

Passion gets you places, much more so than pretending. Who decided that liking everything “good” is the thing to do, in the first place? I think it’s cool to do the “required reading” (literally or metaphorically) and then form your own, solid, opinion that you can articulate. If people disagree, even better. Arguments can lead to something new & valuable– a room of nodding college-zombies, not so much.

Who says, par example, that English majors have to be big, say, Jane Austen fans? I’m not. I like artful sentence fragments, experimental stuff, breaking the rules. I like prose that swirls and sings, leaning towards the poetic (just not on the subject of bean fields). My point being: I don’t have to feel bad about this, and neither should you, if you identify at all with what I’m describing.

Let’s keep it honest & real, shall we? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to become another pretentious academic who doesn’t even know what she’s talking about (but would never admit it). I don’t want to spend my life pretending that I like, enjoy, or endorse things I don’t: what a waste.

I’m realizing that I’d rather ask dumb questions, make mistakes, have the “wrong” opinions; be the one to point out that the Emperor’s not wearing any clothes; all in order to learn, grow, escape the “herd,” & expend my energy on things that actually matter to me.

A worthy trade, I’d say.

What kind of ‘pretentious academic’ pressure do you experience? How do you deal with it?

xo, j

Bonus feature: >perfect for teasing a friend who could stand to lighten up a little :)

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April Two-Thousand & Fourteen

now whatBeautiful April- I don’t even know where to start. I don’t yet have the words, but I can feel them blooming, feel them sprouting beneath my skin like the daffodils that push their way out of the earth overnight.

this month:

hope & hot tea & good chocolate


Gungor’s “Beautiful Things;” “Please Be My Strength”

worms wiggling on the sidewalk

deciding to hold out for an amazing guy

deciding to live simply

deciding to be honest

singing my heart out

“Mountain Sound” playlist with The Head & The Heart, The Lumineers, Ed Sharpe & The Zeros…

stacks & stacks of crisp, fresh novels

redone hymns

dreaming of Lyon

Paige denim, oversized cashmere sweaters

“it is well with my soul”

new friends

last few weeks of “19″

new notebooks

lifting weights

English muffins & salty butter


xo, j

On Repeat: “Michigan” by The Milk Carton Kids

How have I remained ignorant of The Milk Carton Kids until now?

Okay, so they’ve only been around since 2011, but this “vintage Greenwich village-inspired folk that blends the close harmony singing of Simon & Garfunkel with the technical acumen of the Punch Brothers”  is too good to ever miss.

Already, they’ve toured with the Lumineers and have received a Grammy nom for best folk album of 2013. I don’t necessarily put much stock in the Grammys, but still. This nomination is obviously well-deserved.

“Michigan” from the album Prologue is melancholy & rainy, but not depressing: a perfect blend. I would listen to this at sunrise on a road trip, preferably while leaving Michigan, of course.

Bonus: The Milk Carton Kids’ first two albums are available for free download on their website. Day made.



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