This is commencement weekend at Wheaton College. After a week of final exams, our graduating seniors will finally walk across the stage shake the president’s hand and receive a diploma showing that they’ve earned their college degree. Afterward, they’ll take photos outside, tassel turned to the correct side and folio held open to show off the goods.
If I recall correctly, back when I crossed the same stage, I received a note indicating that I needed to return several books to the library and that I owed substantial fines I had to pay before I could actually receive my diploma — thus, all of the photos afterward were taken with the folio closed. But who could blame me? (The answer to that is, I guess, the library and student accounts, but not, I suppose, anyone reading this post.) After spending multiple semesters as one of the worst students at Wheaton College (which is a story for another day), I had only recently figured out where the library was, and I was newly excited about the books it held. On the one hand, I’m certain I was still a recovering bad student — too lazy and disorganized to find some of the books, much less to return them. On the other hand, I like to think that I was also a bit anxious about whether I’d ever again have a chance to read so widely, alongside so many smart and interested readers, and surrounded by so many excellent resources. Nevertheless, in order to graduate, I had to return (or pay for) the books.
I remember this story every year in late April and early May as graduating seniors ask for my advice about what to read after they graduate or how to find good books when they’re not assigned on a syllabus. (And it strikes me that the very fact our students are asking such questions should play some role in assessment — an “our work here is done” kind of role.) I’d say I got this question from about a dozen students this year, with a few office hours appointments that turned out to have been made just to ask it. So here are some of my answers:
- “Keep some great readers among your friends.” That was basically the answer I gave to a student who asked in general terms about how to find great books, but also specifically asked how I came across Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, a novel I assigned for a section of my capstone course addressing the theme of vocation, and Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, another novel which I assigned as the last reading in my course on Environmental Politics. The first had been recommended to me by my (late) friend Brett Foster, whose reading recommendations I am sure never to exhaust. The second was assigned after I read a review of Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, and asked my friend Tiffany Kriner whether I should be reading Ward. She said, yes, and not only yes, but that some interesting eco-critical work had been done on Salvage the Bones, and I might consider it for my Environmental Politics class.
- I had come across the Ward review in The New Yorker, which leads me to the second piece of advice that I handed down: “Read some periodicals that take books seriously.” [INSERT LAMENT FOR BOOKS & CULTURE HERE]
- “Read some things cover to cover.” For me, choosing to read a few publications cover to cover is a discipline that keeps me from picking the topics in which I already have interest, the perspectives that mach my own, the titles or headlines that intrigue me, or the authors that I already know and trust. My cover-to-cover reads are The Chronicle of Higher Education, Comment, and The Hedgehog Review. [INSERT THE LAMENT FOR BOOKS & CULTURE AGAIN HERE.] For years, I’ve tried to cut down the amount of news and commentary that comes to me via social media. This semester, in order to get news slower, I specifically chose to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal in print — I read the front section cover to cover just about every day and the review section every week. (I also subscribe to the New York Times, but not in print (the educator discount isn’t as steep as it is for the WSJ), so I don’t read it cover to cover, exactly, and I try to stay away from the day’s breaking news.) Of course, my cover-to-cover reads are not my only reads. I read from a lot of other sources and some of it is crowdsourced or curated by who I follow on social media, but I think I’m in a better position to filter and interpret the reading that comes to me through those algorithmically determined and bubble-icious channels if I’m disciplined about regularly reading other sources.
Right now, I’m off to commencement ceremonies (faculty are gathering in the library, where perhaps I should check in to be sure I’ve actually paid all my fines!). For some of our students, once they cross that stage, there are no more syllabi, no more assigned readings. For others who may be off to graduate school there are plenty of assigned readings, though some may miss the breadth of their liberal arts education. Either way, the good news is that there’s plenty of good reading to do… even if you’ve returned all your books to the library so that you can show off your diploma.