I have three English teacher confessions. First, I don’t like Shakespeare. I’ve never taught any of the bard’s works and I’d rather keep it that way. Next, I don’t enjoy poetry. I’m more of a maximalist, so the art of compression has never tugged at my heartstrings. But my biggest English teacher confession is that I didn’t enjoy reading until I was in my mid twenties. This isn’t for want of trying. My parents and teachers were indefatigable, pelting me with books from every imaginable genre and topic. I just wasn’t interested.
That changed after an unremarkable dinner at my dad’s apartment during my senior year of high school. My father, a college professor, always kept three items on his dining room table: three dessicated pomegranates, two stacks of papers, and whatever book he happened to be reading. The books, which he swapped out without comment every week or so, never interested me. He didn’t mention them and neither did I. One evening, I noticed a particularly hefty book with an eye-catching cover: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I thumbed through the pages, intrigued by the miniscule font and copious footnotes.
“Hey. What’s this about?” I asked. My dad paused; I imagined gears crunching behind his gun metal eyes.
“Hmm. It’s complicated,” he said.
“Would I like it?” I replied.
“You’re not ready,” he said. His tone was factual, not derisive. I nodded and the conversation moved on. Almost ten years later, I was at a Barnes and Nobles on a date when the memory of that evening at my father’s house popped into my head. Drunk from first date endorphins and adrenaline, I dragged my companion to the store’s fiction section, whipped out my phone, and called my dad.
“Hey, Dad! Remember that time you had this big book on your table and I asked if I could read it and you said I wasn’t ready?”
“The book was really colorful. It had clouds or something on the cover, I think. And it was big.”
“Oh, yes. You’re talking about Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. What about it?”
“Am I ready now?”
Elated, I bought the book, cut the date short, and scampered home to read. Infinite Jest was unlike anything I’d ever experienced: hyper intelligent, hilarious, and heartrendingly sad. I struggled to make sense of the book’s serpentine plot lines and shifting perspectives. Then, after the first 300 pages, it all started to click. Characters began to solidify and the multiple plots shifted into place. The book asked a lot of me. I kept a vocabulary journal next to my bed and filled the pages with words like “ascapartic,” “homodontic,” and “anfractuous.” I cobbled together timelines and kept notes on who did what to whom. By the time I finished it three months later, I was hooked. I joined the DFW listserv, bought a couple signed first-editions, and started reading it a second time.
Infinite Jest changed my life in profound ways. The book follows a hyper-articulate adolescent and an ex-convict as they struggle to survive the nightmare of millennial America. It resonated with me on a cellular level. It helped me understand who I am and how I want to respond to life. And most important for this post, it set up a basic pattern of reading that continues to this day. I want whatever I’m reading to challenge me. I’m not interested in reading for the sake of pleasure. I don’t look to books for relaxation or escape; I’m just not wired that way. I look to books for growth.
I see books as repositories of knowledge. I surround myself with them, stacking and shuffling titles from one pile to the next depending on my project or mood. They’re constant reminders of everything I want to know and everyone I want to be. Whenever I get into a new topic, I start out with the touchstone texts. Then the fun begins. I trawl through bibliographies, casting a wide net and snatching up as many related books and periodicals as my wallet will allow. As soon as I feel myself getting comfortable, I shift to another topic and start over again. The relentless pace isn’t necessarily enjoyable, but that’s the point. I need to feel destabilized and challenged.
During the school year I read almost exclusively young adult and middle grades literature. I love these genres, but I only read them so I can recommend books to my students. Otherwise I’d spend every reading minute eyeballs deep in nonfiction books on topics like pedagogy, philosophy, race, and history. Currently I’m splitting my time between contemporary middle grades books and essays on critical race theory. Reading about kids suffering through the growing pains of adolescence is enjoyable, but nothing comes close to the nerve-searing satisfaction of serious study.
Like the characters of Infinite Jest, I am always trying to escape myself. I use books as escape pods to propel me out of the narcotizing orbit of my own solipsism. Since ADHD shot holes through my memory, I rarely remember what I read. But that doesn’t matter, I don’t have to remember. I have the books. They’re always ready to teach me. All I have to do is grab a highlighter and open one up.
Peter Anderson has been teaching middle school English Language Arts for nine years. He also works with the Northern Virginia Writing Project as a teacher consultant and occasional co-director. You can reach him on Twitter at @MrAndersonELA or through his blog at mrandersonwrites.wordpress.com.