Beware the Anti-Readers: The Weekly Mentor by Oliver DeMille

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by Oliver DeMille

Are you an “Anti-reader”?

Are you an “anti-reader”? No matter how much you love to read, or how much you encourage others to read, you just might be.

beware the anti-readers DeMille-Great Minds read, read, readIt’s surprising, but there are actually a lot of people who argue against reading—in one way or another.

Most of them are well-intentioned, and some of them really do mean to help others. The problem is that in a world where voracious reading is nearly always connected with great learning, and usually with effective leadership, we all need to do more to encourage a lot of reading.

There are several different forms of Anti-Reading, and each is worth knowing about. When we understand the views of the Anti-Readers in our midst, it’s easy to recognize them and see past their agenda.

When we don’t, we can sometimes get caught up in their spin for a while before we realize their folly.

Here are a few of the Anti-Reading viewpoints:

Type A:

“Reading is for kids. Adults need to get on with the important stuff in life.”

This view is poignantly portrayed in the classic movie Dead Poet’s Society. When one student gets excited about out-of-class reading and participation in an extracurricular play, his father gets very upset.

He tells his son that it’s time to grow up and do the “real” things in life, not stay caught in childish things.

The viewer is left with the distinct impression that the father seldom reads anything for enjoyment or even self-improvement—and that he desperately needs these things in his life.

Type B:

“Only read the books I say are important.”

This comes from many different perspectives, but each person sharing this view seems to think his/her perspective is the only good one. “Only read scripture,” says Reb Saunders in the excellent book The Chosen.

Some English teachers have been known to say, “Only read books on the great classics list. The rest aren’t worthy of your time.”

Yet another viewpoint commands young people to “Only read the scriptures and great principles of science and math,” or “Only read the scriptures and great principles of freedom,” or… There are many Type B views, all of them narrow.

Type C:

“Only read the books that agree with me!”

This is the book-burning, Hitler-esque approach to Anti-Reading. If any book, or even anything the author ever did or said, disagrees with those in power, the books should be burned or banned—according to this extreme view. The result, of course, is a reduction of thinking and a loss of freedom.

The opposite should be true! Let people read authors that disagree widely, from Marx and Madison, Dewey and Montessori, to Skousen and Quigley, etc.

Disagreement teaches so much. Just read the dialogues of Plato or the battling characters in Shakespeare—they’re full of highly educational disagreements. So is the Bible.

Education is all about people learning to really think! The scriptures are full of both good and evil people and ideas—because the comparisons are vital! Without them, learning is always shallow. Just consider how broadly Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln read. Great minds read, read, read.

Type D:

“Reading is the only way to learn.”

This view is an interesting twist on Anti-Reading, kind of like Anti-Anti-Reading but it has the same effect: it generally discourages young people from reading.

Let me illustrate how Type D works: I once mentioned Joan of Arc as an example of a great leader who was mentored in the classics and did great things. A participant in the crowd took issue with me, noting that most historians believe Joan couldn’t read and that even if she could she was too young to have read much.

I responded: “I never said she read. I said she was mentored in the classics! She said she was taught by angels, and the wisdom and detail of her knowledge was clearly very deep. Don’t you think angels are classics? Or that angels are mentors?”

The participant seemed downright shocked by my words. “You mean classics can be people?” she asked. “People are the greatest classics,” I told her. “Learning to read them is a key part of any quality education!” I was very thankful that she helped me clarify this point, because without her question I had thought it was obvious to everyone.

It wasn’t, but it is a powerful truth. Reading isn’t the only way to learn, but great classics (great ideas and people) and great mentors (great people, books, or otherwise) are still central to excellence in education. For example, I have a friend who is so severely dyslexic that he simply cannot read. He’s never read a full sentence in his life, he told me. Yet he is one of the most educated and wise people I know. He listens to books on audio, to numerous video speeches and workshops, and he watches, discusses and thinks.

He is the CEO of a multi-million dollar company in California, and to talk to him you’d think he spent his life as a philosophy, English, or history professor. He’s that broadly and deeply read.

But he did it all by audio, and a little video and live classroom attendance. Don’t discourage other types of learning in the name of supporting reading! My friend hasn’t technically read anything, but he’s one of the best readers I know.

Type E:

“Only read books that have been clearly selected by the experts for readers of a certain age.”

This is the style of Anti-Reading that C.S. Lewis railed against in his wonderful book The Abolition of Man. If young readers are taught to read just one type of material, Lewis noted, we will raise generations of weak citizens who are easily swayed by media, government, and forces that hurt society.

Broad and deep reading in the greatest books, and other books as well, is necessary for freedom to last, and young people who read a lot—in many fields—are far more likely to tackle the classics and scripture than those who don’t.

Type F:

“Don’t read that junk! There are better things to read.”

In many ways, this is the worst Anti-Reader approach of all (next to the book burners). It takes many forms, but the gist is that reading fun books will somehow get in the way of reading great books.

This just doesn’t pan out in the real world. The truth is, as mentioned, that young people who love to read a lot of things tend to read a lot more of the great things.

How it Really Works

When I was a student at BYU, one of our professors was trying to get us to read more “great literature,” and one day a student raised his hand and asked if a certain author’s books were “great literature.” The professor paused, then he said something that I’ve never forgotten. As I remember it, he told us:

“When I first started teaching over two decades ago, a student asked me the same question. I told her that ‘No, this author’s works could never compete with Shakespeare, Austen, or Tolstoy.’

“Other students raised their hands and asked about their favorite authors, and I shot them down, one by one. I was gratified with the few ‘teacher’s pets’ in the class who asked me about Bronte and Milton. I felt the lecture had been very successful.

“But during that school year, I noticed something very interesting. The students in the class where I shared my opinions about their favorite authors did markedly worse than the average of my other classes. I wondered why. I wracked my brain, and I called in several students from the other classes and asked them why they had done so well.

“As I talked with these students, a terrible thought began forming in my head. I tested it by asking questions of those who had been in the underperforming class, and my worries were affirmed. It turns out that in the class where I had authoritatively belittled the writings of Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Louis L’Amour, Ayn Rand, Dale Carnegie, James Michener, and so on, most students had read only the assigned books, and a large number of the students hadn’t even finished their assignments.

“In the other classes, where we never discussed these authors, the percentages were very different: more students read all the assignments plus a number of extra books for fun. They also tested with better grasp and retention of the books that were assigned. When I asked what other books they read, I was surprised to hear some familiar names: Carnegie, L’Amour, Rand, Herbert, etc.

“I was humbled. I was also instructed. I had always supposed that students who read dime-store fiction were neglecting their other studies. Actually, the opposite is true. Those who love to read, tend to do a lot of reading—of fun fiction and also of deeper materials. Those who don’t love to read, don’t read very much. This should have been obvious. I discovered that most of those who don’t read westerns, science fiction, mysteries and so on really don’t like to read a lot of anything and don’t read ‘great literature’ either.

“So, my answer to your question is this: Read whatever makes you happy, whatever you enjoy, and be sure to include the well-known greats in your reading as well. If you want to, read Tom Clancy, Louis L’Amour, Donald Trump, Ayn Rand, Robert Ludlum…whatever. Read a lot. The more the better! And also read the great books!”

Finding the Key

As a teacher myself for many years, I experienced the same thing.

The driving urge many adults feel to tell young people to stop reading westerns, sci-fi, or other fiction and instead to go read something “important” pretty much always backfires. The best students just ignore this advice every time they hear it. And the students who do follow this counsel usually stop reading their fiction, start reading something “important,” get bored, and stop reading altogether. Or only read the minimum. They seldom get to the greats!

Nearly all the students who closely read the greats are those who are reading other things as well.

The key is to tell them what really works:

“Hey, that book by Tom Clancy is so interesting. It reminds me of On War by Clausewitz! Have you read it? It’s so awesome!”

“Johnny, you’re reading Jubal Sackett by Louis L’Amour? What a great book! I love that book. I’ve read it several times. It reminds me of Lives by Plutarch. Have you read Plutarch? It’s so good—like L’Amour. Different, but both are sooooooo great!”

“Mary, are you enjoying that Robert Ludlum book? I liked The Bourne Identity the best of his works. He’s such an engaging author. In fact, his books remind me of Shakespeare’s play on Julius Caesar. They’re so similar. I mean, the language is different of course, but the depth and plots are so intricate and fascinating. You should read them both and compare their main themes. I learned so much from this.”

Of course, if you are listening to any of the Anti-Reading types (A thru F above), you’ll be against this approach. But reading is sadly becoming a lost art in the modern world—kind of like letter writing.

For the American founding fathers, letters were the main place they shared their great ideas on freedom. What a tragedy that today few people write such great letters anymore.

It will be an even bigger tragedy if reading loses any more ground in our society. We need to recommend reading—far and wide. There is of course a place for suggesting that a student skip a reading on moral grounds, where the material is pornographic or promotes evil or gratuitous violence, etc. But the message in such cases is not that there are better things to read, but that such smutty materials are just plain wrong.

In every other case, reading is central to a great education for nearly every student, and the various kinds of Anti-Readers do a lot more harm than good. They mean well, but they don’t understand that loving to read means reading a lot—not just reading some narrow, shallow, or authoritarian list. C.S. Lewis was right!

Unlocking Education

By the way, this also applies to textbooks. I often teach people to read “classics, not textbooks,” but in truth I’ve read a lot of both.

I find that this is true with most people who love to read—they don’t turn down a textbook just because it’s a textbook. They check it out to see what it has to offer.

Hopefully, they won’t think that using only textbooks is the best curriculum. That was my point with emphasizing classics.

Too many students are taught to read textbooks to the exclusion of everything else. That said, if you’re reading far and wide, including classics and everything else, read some textbooks too! It’ll be fun. It will even be fun if you hate the textbook, because you can share how bad it was with people.

Oh, while we’re on the subject, one textbook I highly recommend is Constitutional Law by John E. Nowak and Ronald D. Rotunda, Seventh Edition. Now that’s a great textbook!

Okay, so maybe you’re rolling your eyes at this point. That’s good. Read what moves you, not just somebody’s list.

But here’s my main point:

Beware anyone saying “Don’t read this…” or “Don’t read that…” If they say the material is immoral, or evil, okay. Think about it, and if you agree, then such counsel is wise. But to make any of the Anti-Reader arguments above is almost always uninformed, shallow, and narrow. It seldom leads to wisdom, depth, excellence, or a great education.

Instead, help young people love reading. Set an example by reading yourself. Remember that those who love to read and do a lot of it nearly always read much more in scripture and the greats than anyone else. Don’t be swayed by the false words of the Anti-Readers.

Reading is a great part of a quality education. It’s also fun. And it can be incredibly interesting.

Show me a person who reads widely and deeply, in many fields and genres, who skips evil and otherwise reads, reads, reads, and I’ll show you a better citizen, person, and leader than he/she would have been with less knowledge and wisdom.

Join Oliver and our book-loving crew for Mentoring in the Classics! >>

About the Author:

Rachel is the co-author of Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning and the audio series Core and Love of Learning: A Recipe for Success, and the author of the award-winning educational resource, This Week in History. She is an accomplished musician, writer, literary editor, public speaker, consultant and momschool organizer.

11 Comments

  1. Natasha August 23, 2014 at 5:06 pm - Reply

    This is great! I never would’ve thought of myself as an “anti-reader,” but I am guilty of discouraging some of my mentees in reading fluff! I think they were goosebumps books actually…should’ve turned them on to edger allen poe instead! I like the idea of re-directing or recommending something similar, thanks for sharing that idea.

  2. Stephanie August 25, 2014 at 2:14 pm - Reply

    This is great! I feel guilty that I spend any reading time on “twaddle” but sometimes I just need to go there… I gobbled up The Hunger Games but I also just finished Esolen’s translation of Dante’s Purgatory. I have found myself a bit of a literature snob lately, especially when I am invited to book clubs… this post grounded me a bit.

  3. Michelle Curtiss August 26, 2014 at 8:57 am - Reply

    Oh, Rachel and Oliver, I fear it is time to part ways. I am sadder than you might imagine! I have loved and recommended your books and other resources, but here we are again at a crossroads. You recommended a similar course years ago on the ning site.

    You have so much truth to share, but you keep coming back to the same erroneous idea that reading something is better than not reading, almost without regard for what is being read. I still carry the wound of lost years because of teachers and librarians that pursued the same philosophy in my youth.

    To paraphrase a few quotes I believe you have heard before: “Seek ye out of the best books” from Doctrine and Covenants, Gordon B. Hinckley stating ” I could no more name all the books I have read, than the meals I have eaten, but they have all become a part of me.”, or Dallin H. Oaks in October of 2007 “Consider how we use our time in the choices we make in viewing television, playing video games, surfing the Internet, or reading books or magazines. Of course it is good to view wholesome entertainment or to obtain interesting information. But not everything of that sort is worth the portion of our life we give to obtain it. Some things are better, and others are best. When the Lord told us to seek learning, He said, “Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom” (D&C 88:118; emphasis added).”

    I appreciate the teacher’s anecdote, and it may be true to experience for one who is so loosely connected to a relationship as to have its beginning and end dictated by a semester on a school calendar, but for a true mentor the effort and boredom that may come from a difficult to read classic may be turned to joy by animated discussion and application.

    It is not enough to avoid that which is strictly evil, but also that which is a waste of time and distracting. It is not enough to seek that which is good, but that which is best.

    One of jobs as mentors is to sort through and judge that which we pass on to those we mentor. Many modern novels are good, because they teach true principles. They are not necessarily “best”because they also contain graphic violence. Should we not as mentors choose books that contain the truth, but avoiding the debilitating side effects of unnecessary exposure to evil?

    That doesn’t mean we ignore evil, but we give it no more time or place in our teachings than absolutely necessary. While we are discrete about its details, so as not to encourage an unhealthy fascination, we are crystal clear about its effects to deter any unhealthy preoccupation.

    To use an analogy: why drink from contaminated water source, that appears pure, but contains harmful pathogens that will in time reveal themselves and cause grief and suffering, when one can choose to drink from a pure stream and not only avoid the unnecessary side effects, but appreciate the full life giving benefits of such water?

    There is enough time to do all that we should do, but not enough to do all that we could do. We must choose to act, instead of being acted upon.

    I do appreciate your efforts and wish you success in your righteous efforts.

    Michelle Curtiss

    • Rachel DeMille August 27, 2014 at 6:24 am - Reply

      I wonder if this is perhaps a semantical question? In application, I don’t thing our reality and yours play out differently, as respecting the question of time wasting, evil influences, etc. I don’t think anyone who knows the body of our work, our kids, or the way we spend our days, could suppose that we recommend idleness, triviality or a lack of focus. I think, rather, that Oliver’s commentary was urging parents and teachers to inspire, not require. The examples given of urging quality offerings to those who were leaning toward less nutritionally dense options is pretty clear on that point. That being said, I don’t think you’re wrong. It’s a question of who’s your audience, what’s your mission. Godspeed in yours, Michelle! There is much we agree on, and much we can do to support one another’s righteous efforts, as you say! 🙂

  4. Marisa August 26, 2014 at 9:38 am - Reply

    I can see what you are saying, and I mostly agree; however, I am struggling with the issue of those who read fluff will also read other things too. As a youth, I read lots of great books, until I discovered the brain candy of Babysitter’s club. I read those books like a hungry person eats potato chips- without stopping. I also got so used to the ease of the fluff that I stopped reading great books. I only read classics in school and I only read fluff (tons of it) for fun. Classics became a bad word. As an adult I realized how much I missed out with this and I have encouraged my children to read mostly good books. I don’t want them to fall into consuming nothing but candy for dinner. Can you please expound on this? What went wrong in my youth? I did have adults say I should read other books too, but I didn’t care, like I said, classic was a bad word.

    • Rachel DeMille August 27, 2014 at 6:19 am - Reply

      Marisa, this is a great question! In our home, we and our youth are both subject to a scholar contract that we agree upon together. This contract helps us manage such issues as the one you describe. If there is too much emphasis on something that isn’t worth the effort, the open communication and the clear costs and benefits entailed in the scholar contract make for a productive dialog. You can read more about this in Chapter 7 of Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning. In addition, our scholar kids are involved in a class that is super fulfilling and highly demanding. This really crowds out the time wasters! Just the other day our 17yo commented that she’d been studying so much toward her contract goals that she hadn’t had time for a “fluffy” novel in months! She’s loving it; and she’s choosing it! 🙂

  5. ToriAnn August 26, 2014 at 11:34 am - Reply

    I have always loved the idea that you get to assemble your own “great classics” list. Many of my personal classics wouldn’t make it on any other list, but they belong on mine because of how they spoke TO ME based on where I was at that time in my life. So if we discourage reading widely based on personal interest, we remove the freedom to discover your own classic list!

  6. Dawn August 26, 2014 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    Well, I’m happy to know that I’m not an Anti-Reader. I let my kids choose whatever they want to read. In addition, I read some of the books which they have chosen. Thanks for the info!

  7. Jennifer August 28, 2014 at 6:07 pm - Reply

    I have to agree with Marisa. As a youth I also read a lot of books of my own choosing (my parents didn’t tell me what to read or not to read), which ended up being a lot of brain candy, but mostly because I really wasn’t exposed to how great the really great stuff could be. I knew some classic titles and had to read a few in school (and answer the reading comprehension questions on the test) and they were OK but for me, the inspiration and real learning comes when you get to discuss the books and the great ideas in them and think about how it applies to your life. That is what I was missing then and why I probably never really got turned on to classics then. I think inspiration, in the form of giving them a real taste of their greatness, is key to helping youth discover the classics and with a taste like that, it is easy to begin to discern between the “good, better, best” for yourself.

  8. sue maxwells September 4, 2014 at 12:27 pm - Reply

    I think that there is quite a bit to consider about what Oliver wrote. After spending many hours with reading books in depth in the MIC class, I felt like I needed a break. I am not a fast reader. So, looking at the mess in the world, I decided to re- read Louis L”Amour’s most spooky book called “The Haunted Mesa.” There are very interesting concepts in there that might draw one into quantum physics, other dimensions existing in the world that we cannot see, an interest in ancient Indian culture, etc. I had no idea that Louis was such a great author until I found out that the DeMille’s recommend several of his books. With that, I found the large biographical book about the author and his writings that I had given my husband, who was a fan of his, and was astonished at what I learned about him. He is the last person who knew all of the people of the old west, and every book is thoroughly researched and totally authentic. That is * important * American History! I was going to save those books to honor my husband who died last year,but now I am going to read them to honor him.

    At 73 years of age, I have a lifetime of reading all types of books behind me, and as a result of my experience in MIC, I have learned to read in greater depth, study everything about the books, culture, authors, times, etc, and have come to appreciate quality literary skills, I have become interested in the reasons why people write books, and the importance of stories to our culture and personal lives and families. It fits my interest in family history. I have learned more about history from researching my ancestors than reading a book about history. Works better for me if I can associated a time period, event, etc, with an ancestor.

    After spending 10 years researching the ancestors of my maternal grandmother, whom I knew, in order to co-author a book that will put her officially into ballet history, I learned how to leave “no stone unturned.” What an amazing, enriching, and enlightening experience that has been- history, stories,family, miracles, more than I can ever explain.

    Gordon B. Hinckley’s childhood home had a huge library- I bet it contained all sorts of books that he read when growing up. I want to read everything I can before I die and tell my family’s stories. When I meet people now, I want to understand their stories- reading has made my life richer and enlarged my thinking. Thanks for the great thoughts in this article.

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