Reading Widely: the joy of “useless” books

Juoquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of INHERENT VICE (2014)

“I can’t use anything from it,” he said.

We were driving to a retreat together, maybe five years ago now. Brad (not his real name) was a youth pastor who had invited me out to speak for his group when we got talking about what books we were reading. We were both English majors and erred on the side of pretentious choices. I told him I was almost done with Thomas Pynchon’s Inherit Vice and that, whenever I travel or am away from work/home, I try to read fiction.

He started telling me that he loved science fiction and that his best memory of reading as a younger person was being enveloped in the world of Frank Herbert’s Dune (this was well before the recent renewed interest). But he was reading, at the time of this conversation, the novel Animal Farm, because Donald Trump had recently been elected President of the United States. He was told (probably by someone on the internet) that this book would help “explain the times” as it was precisely “the times” that he was troubled with.

But Brad had a problem. He was a youth pastor — and that, my friends, is a problem. For all the reasons you might be thinking this profession is problematic, the reason I am thinking of is content. When I was a youth pastor, I had to teach way more than I am teaching now. It was not uncommon for me to have to prepare 3–4 different sermons/lessons in the matter of seven days. You’ve got middle school boys Bible study followed by sophomore boys the next day, only to follow the large youth group gathering on Wednesday night, which then led to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes Bible study that coming Friday morning. And if you were asked to preach in “big church” on Sunday your whole week was thrown off. Youth pastors have to get a lot of content in. This is one of the reasons why I tell people who want to be pastors to start in youth ministry. You get some good reps; the downside is that it’s exhausting.

Brad’s problem with Animal Farm was not in its literary value (although, maybe it should have been); Brad’s problem was with Animal Farm’s utilitarian value. There wasn’t anything immediately useful for him in reading this short, sort-of-good book. There weren’t any quips, quotes, or “good thoughts” in it. There were not any brief metaphors aside from the larger motif upon which the book is based. There were not enough pithy teachings, no simple explanations, and no axioms by which all human beings should live. And this is what led him to say to me:

“I can’t use anything from it.”

Brad’s problem extends to many readers today, and most readers are not youth pastors (thankfully). Readers today are looking for something to grab on to, something to tweet or share, something from one paragraph to bring meaning to their life. But reading does not have a utilitarian function all of the time. Reading has a longer game it is playing.

Having gone through the publishing process twice, the conversation with editorial teams around your “target market” is unavoidable. Who will buy your book? What desires do they have? What do they want and how will you give them what they want? These editorial and marketing teams are smart because they’ve figured out exactly how and why you and I shop for books: we have a problem and we need content to solve it.

I’m a Christian with anxiety so I want a book about the peace of Christ.

I’m a young business owner that needs advice so I need a book from an organizational expert.

I struggle with the “weird parts of the Bible” so I need a book with answers.

I’m a parent who needs help in the toddler phase so where’s that book that will help me with my daughter?

We seek out books that will give immediate results. And this is fine. But I’m noticing it’s mostly all we read anymore. Many people read for the purpose of receiving a utilitarian specific: give me a tool, a metaphor, an illustration, a skill that can help me with_________. This is what we want and this is what publishing houses want to give.

But that is only one way to form wisdom in daily life. To read widely is to read uselessly sometimes, to read without any immediate use or function. Instead, reading widely includes reading for no reason, reading without cause, and reading strictly for the pleasure or the discipline. This is a good reason to read poetry. At best, you might read a line from Delmore Schwartz or William Stafford and quote it, but that’s it. Nothing in a poem will tell you how to live your life. But everything about reading poetry will bring you a larger imagination of language and experience. Poetry will make you feel something, but you won’t know what that feeling is for some time — and that’s the gift of it.

Reading an entire novel will give you a sense, an impression, or a kind of understanding, but rarely will it give you anything else. It will give you a larger sense of the world, an experience of beauty, but it won’t give you any advice. This is the novel’s great gift: to read a story and, by the end of it, have no idea why that story was told. It is only in considering that question — why is this story being told? — that you begin to grow in your ability to think, and in that, your ability to become wise.

Or what about weird graphic novels and fan fiction or science fiction? What about just rolling with a book series for seven books because the you adore the characters and the writing is strong?

Or try reading a gorgeous biography like David Blight’s book on Frederick Douglass or Richard Powers’ Mark Twain. You’ll read the whole thing and have various facts about the person’s life, but you won’t get an axiom. Instead, you’ll get something much richer: a whole life. You just took 800 pages down the rabbit trail of someone else’s experience. You met their wife, you read their letters, and you were told the context of their existence — an existence so different from yours.

And that’s the gift: you spend that much time not thinking about you. You were brought in to something else, another world entirely. Yes, you cannot “use” any of it, really, and there’s not much to “take home” and “apply” to your life, career, or relationships, but it just enriched your experience of living in a way no other thing can. Something happens to you when you spend more time thinking about someone else than about yourself. So long as we read for “use” we keep ourselves at the center and our action or possible action as the top thing on our mind. Maybe it would be better if we weren’t involved at all? Maybe reading would be more beneficial if we, for a small moment of time, forgot why we were reading in the first place? That’s the use of a “useless” book.

A popular utilitarian reading style is happening around race right now. Many books are published about “how not to be racist” or “how to be a good white person. They are filled with some good wisdom and smart statements about living a more equitable life, but they only go so far. The writer Jia Tolentino articulated it well when she was asked by Interview Magazine about this:

Tolentino is getting at something important here: “to seek out the genuine pleasure of decentering” ourselves develops a different kind of learning within us. That is the gift of reading “uselessly,” as I’ve put it. To read without an agenda or a “fix” is to take hours inside the pleasure of not being the center. The best genres for this are history, fiction, poetry, and biography. A movie might do this for a few hours, a show for a few hours more, but to read a good book outside of any sort of “function” might allow us all to function a little better. It doesn’t matter if you can’t use any of it. Because maybe we’re better off not using anything in the first place.

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Chris Nye

Living in Portland, Oregon with my wife and son. Doctoral candidate at Duke University. Author of a few books: chrisnye.co/books