The Importance of Reading

by on February 2, 2012 in Must Reads with 1 Comment »


One of the things I stress to all my students is the importance of reading outside of the classroom. Typically, we connote “pleasure” (or “leisure”) reading, as it’s so often referred to, with reading something simple and easy, like the sports page or a detective thriller. And while there is nothing wrong with catching up on the latest Girl with the Dragon Tattoo installment or getting some critical commentary about the Knicks’ woes, it is imminently possible to enjoy—or, dare I say, be entertained by—a somewhat more intellectual/educational reading. On that note, allow me to suggest Stanley Fish’s blog on the New York Times website.

Who is Stanley Fish, and why should we read him?

Stanley Fish, a United States intellectual, is currently a professor of law and humanities at Florida International University. He is probably best known for two achievements, both of which are related to academics: one, gutting the English Department at Duke University in the late-‘80s; and two, his analysis of the theory of interpretative communities, in which he asserts that because a text (i.e. a novel) does not have meaning outside of cultural assumptions, it does not exist outside the reader’s subjective experience and is thus meaningless.

Views this strong often underpin much deeper and perhaps more radical professional philosophies. Unsurprisingly, Fish has been criticized as, among other denigrations, an unreasonable “fatalist” who believes that “ideas have no consequences.” But those who present feeble ideas into the intellectual marketplace are not worth a critic’s time, and so it would be silly to ignore Fish’s work, even his Times column (which he recently conceded was merely a blog). Even intellectual grouches have their own energies, and Fish is an accomplished author, having published 13 books, the most recent of which is called How to Write a Sentence. (I did not make that up.) So I ask you: what kind of person writes a book about sentences? A person who loves to learn.

Which Stanley Fish columns should we read?

In the introduction, I threw out the crazy idea that reading something that might seem like it’s meant more for the classroom than for the beach can be entertaining. Well, I believe in that completely.

Take, for instance, the first four paragraphs from this 2007 Stanley Fish column about Katie Couric (the best thing about the Internet is the archives):

Katie Couric is now asking the presidential candidates 10 questions designed (declares the CBS News Web site) to “go beyond politics and show what really makes them tick.”

Already I’m suspicious.

Why, when the office the candidates seek is a pre-eminently political one, does it make sense to go “beyond politics”? (It is as if you were looking for an office manager and decided to go “beyond organizational skills” by inquiring into the applicants’ tastes in books or music.)

Beyond politics means beyond policies. Rather than asking, “Would you favor a flat tax rate?” or “Do you propose to provide universal health coverage, and if so, how?” or “Do you have a plan for extricating us from Iraq without further destabilizing the Middle East?”, Couric will ask, “When was the last time you lost your temper” (a question Lyndon Johnson could have answered, “When was the last time I didn’t?”) or “Who is the single most impressive person you’ve ever met” (watch out; you may be endorsing someone other than yourself) or “What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?” (doing this interview) or “Besides your family, what are you most afraid of losing?” (the nomination and election).


Other recent columns of his include discussions of Obama and fairness, the implications of the humanities in the digital age (here and here), and looking at dogs. All are worth checking out over lunch.

Why should we read in general?

I’ve included this section as a bonus, in which I’ll state my case for reading as explicitly as possible. Reading has a multitude of cognitive, cultural, and intellectual benefits, but when making the case for reading, I like to focus on these four benefits:

1. Reading expands your reservoir of information. In other words, the more stuff you read, the more stuff you know. This can be useful for making casual conversation, for winning arguments with your friends, for trying to talk to people at parties, and, of course, for trying to understand what in the world your professor is talking about!

2. Reading improves your vocabulary.

3. Reading improves your writing.

4. Reading improves your critical thinking skills.


Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you’re getting a Bachelor’s degree Business or Human Services; your future field will require that you are able to think critically. To start practicing, start reading.


One Comment on “The Importance of Reading”

  1. 1 Sandra Ariza said at 11:35 am on February 16th, 2012:

    Very nice and it covers a variety of issues, all with the idea to convince me to read more. It’s very enticing!

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