Letter to a Young Reader

Maybe it’s graduation season, or the wave of nostalgia that hit me with a recent dive back into the Dashboard Confessional archives, or the fact that I’ve now spent more time on this side of 16 than on the other, younger side of it. Whatever the reason, I find myself thinking about aging and wisdom and all the things I wish the younger versions of myself had known about life in general and the reading life in particular. So with credit to Rainer Maria Rilke and Sister Mary Clarence, who was the original reason I read Letters to a Young Poet, I give you an incomplete list of notes for younger readers, from a slightly older one.

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1. Those cocktail parties you imagine you’ll go to when you grow up, where you’ll be expected to quote Proust while swilling 20-year-old Scotch? They don’t exist. In the rare instance that people at a party do want to talk about books, they will likely ask if you’ve read the book that this weekend’s blockbuster movie is based on (and there’s nothing wrong with that).

2. You will encounter people who want you to be ashamed of what you like to read. Guilty pleasure is not a thing; there is only pleasure. Don’t apologize for it. (Note: this philosophy is 100% safe with books, but your mileage may vary with other life choices.)

3. At some point, you will be tempted to judge other people by what they read. This will not make you look cool or smart or whatever you’re hoping for. Don’t do it.

4. There are amazing books in every genre. Resist the temptation to write off a whole genre because the one (or two, or five) books you tried from it didn’t work for you. Try not to be an “I’ll read anything but X” kind of reader.

5. Only hanging out with people who read the same books as you will ultimately prove boring and only makes you shallower.

6. Sometimes you will love a book that no one else cares for. Sometimes you will hate the book everyone else loves. This is all okay.

7. The right book at the right time can make all the difference. If you can tell it’s not the right time, make a mental note and revisit it in five or ten years.

8. The way you feel about books is the way other people feel about movies or music or photography or cooking or [insert other artistic pursuit here]. Books are the lens through which you make sense of the world, but they’re not the only lens or the best lens. (There is no best lens.) Don’t limit yourself to only books. Don’t turn away interesting friendships or relationships on the grounds that the other person isn’t a reader.

9. Everyone has gaping holes in their reading. You are not the only one who never made it through Ulysses (or Moby-Dick or War and Peace or or or or), and it’s okay if you never do.

10. You won’t know which books are going to change your life until they have changed your life. Be prepared to be surprised.

11. Whatever your favorite books and however super-specific and niche-y your taste, there’s a community for it. You might have to do some searching to find Your People, but you are never alone.

12. By the time you reach adulthood, reading will look different. There will be new technology, new formats, new tools, new ways of talking about books, and new places to go to talk about books. Don’t panic. Change can be good, and books are going to be all right.

13. There is no such thing as objective judgment about books. Behind every review, recommendation, and award is a single person (or a group of them) who sat alone in a quiet room with a book to which they brought all of their unique personal experiences, unconscious biases, and idiosyncratic ideas. Some of these people will be anointed as Cultural Authorities. You get to decide for yourself whether they deserve your attention and trust.

As I said, it’s an incomplete list. So tell me, friends, what’s the readerly wisdom you wish you’d had sooner?

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