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.

“Passionate.”

“Boring.”

“Obnoxious.”

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: http://phrasegenerator.com/academic >perfect for teasing a friend who could stand to lighten up a little 🙂

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5 thoughts on “Required Reading, Not Raving: A Call to Like What You Really Like

  1. I tried reading Walden twice, at two different periods in my life, and quit both times. Got bored. Something about it kept drawing me back, though – maybe it was a quote, I don’t remember – and the third time (years later) it clicked with me and I’ve loved it ever since; I’m even blogging about it now. I think it has to do with being at a different stage of life. I think something the intellectual snobs miss is that sometimes a reader isn’t interested in a book not because they lack taste, but because they simply don’t have a need for whatever that author is saying. Maybe they will later, maybe not. And much as I admire Thoreau, he still gets on my nerves from time to time. We’ve got to treat these ‘classic’ writers as human beings and recognize their foibles, because they all have them.

    1. That’s a really great point; I think you’re right. And after considering your comment, I realized, too, that that’s what good teachers do, they help students find the life & personal application buried under the centuries-old vocabulary or ambiguity. Any educator with the attitude “you must like this because it’s ‘good;’ don’t question it” can turn students off from a particular genre or author (or even literature in general) forever. But yeah, I think seeing the ‘classic’ authors as humans rather than, well, gods, is so important to connecting with them (& it’s much more helpful).

      1. Here in Australia, few youths speak about Thoreau, and amongst people I know, few even know his name. I’m not taking any degree in Literature, perhaps it’s vastly different in a university community where people communicate more on American Literature.

        So it is starkly different for me. I stumbled upon his work two or more years ago,
        and intellectually I had great difficultly understanding him at the time; but just like the person who responded above, part of me was able to catch some truth in what he had to say, so I laid it aside, and found myself returning to it again a year later.

        Years on now, I absolutely adore reading his work. There’s a freedom in his writing that I now feel, a sensory experience he’s able to capture and confer to me, and few writers are able to give me that.

        He once said, ‘books must be read as reservedly as they were written,’ and I never thought when I first picked up his ‘Walden,’ that I would be carrying around ‘The Portable Thoreau’ almost every time I leave my home.

  2. Ah conformity! We both know that I’ve been caught in this one before. I think the insecurity of appearing unintelligent really dwells deep within everyone. Who wants to be that one kid that gets singled out? We aim to be individuals, but our clothes, attitudes, mannerisms, and speech all reflect our desire to be apart of the collective. I know that as I’ve let go of what I want my identity to be and let Christ become my identity, I’ve felt a lot more free to be the myself, even if it doesn’t strike others as cool or attractive. It is really freeing!

    1. That is so true. But I think once we get older and realize the actual value of being “that one kid,” we can even inspire others with our honesty and vulnerability. It’s tough to get there though. It’s a journey. 🙂

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