Our Reading Lives

Useless Information or the Keys to the World?

I have an abnormal attraction to books that explore things that are unfamiliar to me. The Amish books that lined my shelves in my early twenties caused my friends a good laugh, but hey – if anyone ever had a question about the Amish, I was the girl to call. Next came Hasidic Jews, and, after moving to LA and learning (and by learning I mean hearing about but not learning one damn thing) about a religion called Scientology, I went out and bought their bestseller. This latter book caused members of my family to actually sit me down to make sure I wasn’t planning on hopping over to the Celebrity Centre to become besties with Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

Eventually, I moved out of religion and onto people. The year I graduated from college, Oprah had an author on her show who was transgender. Up to that point in my life, not only had I not thought about it, but I’d also not realized that some people felt trapped in a body that didn’t match how they felt on the inside. After sincerely trying to imagine what it would feel like to wake up in a man’s body (being that I’m a woman and very much relate to being one) and almost giving myself a panic attack, I trekked to the bookstore to do some more research and look at the author’s book. (Please note: this topic was not as widely talked about a decade ago as it is now, there are many books to be read about it today –fewer were available back then.) A whole new world (and education) opened up to me that day – and I was able to shed some previous juvenile prejudices that should have no place in this world (much less high school and college campuses, where they were being developed and nurtured, and probably hurting the most vulnerable people).

Since then, there have been many, many other books that I’ve gravitated toward because they teach me things otherwise alien to me. Interestingly, I don’t tend to gravitate toward people just because they are different than I am. (I don’t dislike people who are different, I just don’t happen to seek them out like I actively do these books.) After giving this some thought, I discovered something about myself: there is a significant part of me that not only like books more than people, but is able to learn from books better than from conversations. Why?

  • Books will teach you something without asking you questions about why you want to learn it.
  • Books don’t make fun of you if you have to look up words or want to take a break from “the conversation” to do a little research.
  • Books go away when you’ve reached your limit on what you can hear for the day.
  • Books don’t roll their eyes when you have to ask them the same question for the umpteenth time because you just can’t remember that one little detail. They gladly let you flip back through their pages to find the correct information.
  • Books let you gasp, cringe, make stupid comments as you absorb new information without judging you.
  • Books are the most patient teachers in the world.

After the previously mentioned experiences, I learned a valuable lesson: some people don’t like to learn about situations that are out of their comfort zones, and they feel uncomfortable when they see that you are doing so. As if just by reading a book you might become someone they don’t know (which is actually a valid thought in some cases, since when we learn something valuable our lives can change). So, when I started going to the bookstore to buy books on sustainable living–how to raise chickens, how to slaughter your own pigs, how to live on a dollar a day (even though I lived in Los Angeles where none of this was going to take place… particularly the dollar a day thing)–I kept them hidden in my room for fear of the mockery that would ensue from people seeing the titles. And though I’ll never use most of the information that I read, (at least hopefully, because one book explained how to kill a beloved pet in case you live so far from the vet that you need to take matters into your own hands… there was gasping, shouting, AND crying on my end with that one), I can certainly tell you that if you don’t want your chickens to fly away, you will want to clip their wings, and beware of which kinds you raise because depending on the breed of the little ladies you choose, you’ll wind up with a slew of personalities (and you don’t want a bunch of saucy bitches yelling at you every morning).

And though I have a secret place for certain books that I am learning from (the ones I don’t want prying eyes to  see and their owners to ask me questions about), I am so thankful that this information is available, and I have the freedom to obtain it (and hide it if I want to). In the long run, I know I’ll be smarter for it. Even if most of the information is useless, some of it has made me a better person by introducing me to the human condition in ways that I would never be able to experience otherwise. And no, those aren’t books about the legends of the ancient English Cunning Folk and their magic cats peeping out of my closet shelves (ahem, let me go close those doors really quickly).