Don’t just read what you like to read. The world is made up of more than your likes. There are conversations that are not covered by what you like; there are points of view too uncomfortable to encounter in what you love. If you plan on navigating the uncomfortable mess that is life you’ll have to read outside your narrow pleasures. Anyway, comfort zones are best and safely left between the covers.
And don’t just read what you’re told to read. If they—whoever they are—tell you to read it, read it. There might be a good reason for it. Or a bad reason. Either way, you’ll only know after you’ve read it.
So, yeah, read the so-called canon. But only if you have time. It isn’t like it’s going anywhere. (Seriously, it isn’t.)
If you enjoy reading something, read more things like that thing. Discover like-minded writers. One of the best ways to navigate the vast reading world is by using favourite writers as waypoints. They provide a basis for understanding and interrogation. They’re a first step but never the only step. One writer always leads to another, and then another, and before you know it you’ve read someone you wouldn’t have read otherwise. That’s one of the beauties of reading—all the writers you’ll meet on your journey.
If you don’t like something, ask yourself why that is. Is it the language and the writing style? How does it affect you? How could it be improved? Is it because your worldview was upset? Did the writing bring out something inside you that you’d prefer to remain hidden?
Read and question.
Question the writer, the text, and yourself—do this all the time. (The unexamined life and all that.)
Read a good travel story, the kind that describes colours you haven’t touched, sounds that your ears haven’t kissed, and smells that you haven’t seen. Lose yourself in a story about a place far, far away and find yourself in a book about home. Travel stories are more than tales about escaping or being lost. They’re also about being found.
Pick up some romance novels. Even the saucy, badly-written ones. Sure, they sound cliché and cheesy at first read. But, quite frankly, what could be more cliché and cheesy than love? Don’t be too quick to laugh at heaving bosoms and eager members. Life, we’re told, is stranger than fiction. You’d best believe that whatever is going down in the streets or the sheets is so much cornier than what happens between the pages. (But those heaving bosoms, though!)
Read about the lengths people will go to just to be around the one they love. Read about doomed love. Read about affairs. Read about lust. You need to read about these things because, inevitably, some versions of them will affect your life. You need to know that you’re not the first to feel this way, that you’re not the only one who’s afraid to lose, to be hurt, or to be discarded. Many have come before you. Many more will come after. Take heart in that.
When you’ve read about love then you can have a good laugh about it. But only after, not before. Love is an inside joke; you’ll get it when you’re through.
Read about love.
Read the classics—Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Socrates, Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Seneca, Horace, and many other writers from antiquity. Their words are echoed in places and things that rule your life at this very moment. Don’t read about them from second and third-hand sources because everyone seems to find exactly what it is they’re looking for in their ancient words. This can only mean two things: either these classical writers figured out the meaning of life (which would make all writing that followed redundant) or the writing is so broad and dense that most people simply comb their lengthy works for the one passage that justifies their worldview. Read the original raw material—it’s more accessible than you think. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the genius of the classical writers. And you’ll be horrified by their ideological blind spots. That’s the thing about all of these old men. They got so many things right, but they got an equal number of things wrong. So before someone bullies you with their supposedly unassailable genius, read the classics. There’s great wisdom and folly there. (Also…where the are women?)
You have to read some philosophy. You can always get a different perspective on life’s most pressing issues. You don’t have to know all the theories—that’s for tweed-wearing university professors and annoying dinner guests (often one and the same). But try some philosophy. You never know. You might like it.
Read some law. Read some things about economics. They rule the world around you. These topics are not as lofty as they’re made out to be. Oftentimes, the core concepts can be broken down into simple ideas you’ll observe in everyday life. When you start picking out the fine threads of economics and law around you then you’ll see how things are connected in one big delicate web, in danger of being ripped to shreds by a Wall Street sneeze or a Supreme Court blunder.
How much can you spend? What will happen to your savings if that thing happens? What are your rights? What can the police not do to you? Why can some people not get married? Law and economics will tell you.
O! And nonfiction. You have to read that. Reality really is the darnedest thing. Fiction is cool, no doubt, but every once in a while you need to double-up on some nonfiction—essays, memoirs, biographies, whatever. Nonfiction is to a reading diet what a heap of vegetables is to a meal—that shit works in mysterious ways. You don’t need to be intimidated by the size, length, or gravitas of nonfiction works. Start small and the build. Rome wasn’t built in a day, it certainly won’t be read in one either.
Read some history. There are entire annals of writing chronicling the triumphs and high points of humanity as well as its saddest and most despicable moments. History has horrors that will shame the most gruesome Hollywood film. At times you won’t believe what human beings have done to each other. But here’s the thing: they did. In some cases, they’re still doing them. There are few things more informative about the present than the past. When you read history you’ll be surprised how long ago isn’t long ago at all, and just how far tomorrow really is.
Read about slavery. Read about colonialism. Read about their effects.
Read about Apartheid.
Read about human trafficking.
Read about poverty and the desperate situations more than half the world faces.
Read about climate change. (“Safety glasses off, motherfuckers!“)
Science—read some. Period.
Once you’ve read about these things, ask yourself why they’re still around. Then ask yourself the really difficult question: What are you are going to do about them?
Read some comic books. Keep in mind they’re a medium, not a genre. There are some intricate stories running amok between their illustrated pages. (And superheroes are cool no matter what anybody says.)
Read newspapers and magazines. Read all the news you can get your hands on. Although there are so many ways to discover the world, to record it, and to share stories about human life, there’s an equal number of ways to obfuscate the truth. You have to sieve through many sources to find what really happened and how it all went down. It might seem as though the truth has lost all value, but if you look hard enough you’ll find a cohort of journalists still fighting that good fight, still doing the hard work of critiquing power and holding the mighty to account.
Read some books on religion and faith—read about why people believe what they believe and why others don’t believe. Whatever you hold to be true or false, try to engage with the material.
Why? Because you never know where you’ll find meaning; you never know where you’ll find comfort. Nobody has all the answers; nobody knows the endgame. (Ha!) We’re all here trying to make sense of the world, all curious about what happens next. Anyway, if one book had all the answers, everything else would be pointless.
Read minorities—read voices from the margins and beyond. The mainstream isn’t the only place where stories happen.
Read for fun, for yourself.
Join a reading or book club. Just like a lot of things in life, reading is more fun when you do it with someone else. (Trust me on this one.)
Join a library. You always think you’re alone until you walk down an aisle.
Read. One of the greatest freedoms in the world is the ability to read whatever you want to read, whenever you want to read it. This freedom isn’t available everywhere. As long as you have it, abuse that freedom. And then try to make sure other people can enjoy the same freedom.
Read. At all times.
Read. In all places.
Because what you don’t know can and will be used against you.