Briefly Noted: Randall Silvis on “Why I Read”

I’m never upset to discover that the article I’m about to read is brief, witty, and thought-provoking. That is why I liked Randall Silvis’s recent article, “Why I Read.”[1] In the article, Silvis describes the ways in which he tries to dupe his students into reading, so that eventually they might actually want to read and to make reading a habit. The article is divided into things that he “does” tell his students, and things that he strategically “does not” tell his students.

Silvis “does” tell them that reading will:

1. Increase their vocabulary

2. Make them more informed on the world around them

3. Most likely increase their brain power

4. Make them better writers, which:

5. Helps them get better grades

6. Help them get a job after school

7. Keep them from being functionally illiterate.

But, as Silvis tells it, there are certain deeper motivations for reading, motivations which likely would not be immediately motivating for this generation of college students. Therefore, he “does not” tell them that:

1. Reading will sensitize them to the human condition (because they have not lived long enough to understand the human condition).

2. Reading takes them to places they have never been and might never go.

3. Reading will lay a hand on them when they are homesick.

4. Reading will make their loneliness go away.

5. Reading will help them find themselves when they are lost.

6. Reading will “turn on the lights” in their darkness.

He “does” and “does not” tell them these things, in the hope that some student, one day, might walk toward him and say “Professor! I read the most fantastic book last night!” “And,” Silvis states, “I will know that she, this one out of many, is on her way to learning all the rest.”

Silvis’ article was worth the time spent. It spoke to the human condition (the first thing that he “does not” tell students), gave me a few chuckles (he didn’t list that one), and made me want to be a better teacher. Elsewhere, I’ve written a series on reading and that series provides the framework within which I would modify and add to the things Silvis said.

[1] Randall Silvis, “Why I Read” in The Chronicle Review (April 2011): B20.