What Ought a Young Girl Read?
Formal education is nice, but I don’t think it’s sufficient to become an interesting person. I don’t know what the reasons are precisely, but somehow assigned reading doesn’t grow a person the way unassigned reading does. You’d think the accountability and extra incentives to pay attention would mean a person would get more out of an assigned book, but I don’t find this to be the case. Richard Arum’s book Academically Adrift seems to bear out this general idea. In one of the only studies of its kind, they find (depressingly) that attending college doesn’t improve most students critical thinking skills.
Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills.
This next factoid is only half-remembered, so forgive me if it’s wrong. I think the same study found that students who read as much as a single an unassigned book did improve their scores on a critical thinking test. Reading a book because you actually wanted to was one of if not the biggest predictors of improvement in critical thinking scores among college students (assuming you trust my memory on that).
I think the real returns on unassigned reading may be even greater than that though. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that I’m the total of all the books I’ve read. Inasmuch as I have any personality at all or that I have ever had anything interesting to say, it’s some tertiary effect of the books I’ve read and the order in which I read them.
There are caveats. I don’t remember most of what I’ve read. I can remember what it felt like to read Go:del, Escher, Bach—enough that I can easily name it my favorite book, but I really don’t remember all that much of it at a surface level.
And that’s not the worst of it. I read Lee Iacocca’s biography at least ten times when I was growing up starting in third grade. I do remember bits and specs of it, and I remember adoring him and wanting to become him when I grew up. In retrospect though, that book was no different from several dozen other business biographies I might have read. And while reading it, it never once occurred to me that my opinion of a man should probably be based on more than what that man has to say about himself.
I also devoured the Chronicles of Narnia several times over. Despite that, I only found out that C.S. Lewis was a Christian after I graduated from college. The whole Aslan=Jesus thing flew over my head, and I don’t know how many times it did so.
And in high school, I loved turnaround expert Al Dunlap’s book Mean Business. I read and devoured it a few times. Within a year he was sacked for having destroyed Sunbeam. The consensus now is that he simply fired people without regard to what he was damaging and hoped to exit before any bad consequences materialized. Again, it took me years to actually figure out that I should have seen the warning signs. For example, he advocated moving headquarters between cities as a way to get rid of employees who weren’t committed to the company. This sounded like a great idea to 16-year-old Vikram. Now I’ve finally become cynical enough to ask if this would get rid of everyone who had more attractive opportunities for employment while retaining those who no one else wanted. “Chainsaw Al” reached an agreement with the SEC that bars him from ever serving as CEO of a publicly traded company. My once-hero is now on several worst-CEOs-of-all-time lists floating around the internet.
So, I’ve had my failings as a reader.
Despite these many missteps though, I feel a sense of identity with my list of read books. You would be better served by reading them than by conversing with me.
And so I once had thought I would direct the reading adventures of my offspring by placing the appropriate book in her hands at the appropriate moments so she could experience those special moments that are probably impossible to share with anyone else. (How many times in your life have you actually convinced another human being to read a whole book?)
But I now realize that that would only lead to my own frustration. I read Iacocca when I was barely big enough to carry it around because I was obsessed with cars. If my daughter is right-thinking, she will be obsessed with cars too. Did I actually benefit though from unknowingly reading self-promotional propaganda? Should I help her frame it that way, or let her make the realization on her own, which took me decades?
And is Iacocca even the same book now that it was in the 80s? Maybe the Iacocca of then is an Elon Musk book today.
Chainsaw Al is an ever tougher act to follow. I got to have the experience of reading the book, buying into it wholly, and then finding out for real how horribly wrong I could be and how easy it is to buy into narratives that people tend to write about how awesome they are. How do I figure out who is going to be charged by the SEC a couple of years from now? Will that person write a book before it happens?
These were among the questions I had in my head when I read this Paul Graham essay.
Reading and experience train your model of the world. And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists. Your mind is like a compiled program you’ve lost the source of. It works, but you don’t know why.
This seems right to me. I have an undergraduate engineering degree I never use but nevertheless made me. All those books and formulae I don’t remember are not just forgotten echoes. They are the chamber in which future forgotten thoughts will echo.
So, I think maybe the best option I have is to take the same approach my parents took: plop her down in the library, and let her read whatever is compelling to her with a general indifference as to whether it is enriching or not.
I will probably still give her an unsubtle shove toward Go:del, Escher, Bach someday though.