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Posted at 10:22 AM ET, 02/ 4/2011

The worst advice you can give a child

By Alexandra Petri

I've been faking it for years.

Remember when I said I had seen "Jurassic Park"? I was lying. Friends? Boy Meets World? Gilmore Girls? Pocahontas? Barney? Pretty much any generational touchstone you can name from 1988 to the present?

I didn't see any of them. I've read the Wikipedia pages. And the IMDB quotes. I even perused the back cover of the DVD. "I enjoyed all 89 minutes of the running time," I say, when probed. "And I thought the cinematography was, as VARIETY said, 'breathtaking, four stars.'"

It's awful. It's harrowing. And it's because of some of the worst advice I ever received: become a reader.

I'm a reader, all right. Probably a lifelong reader, at the rate I'm going. You can't shake the habit; it's like drinking, but you feel marginally better the next morning.

So whenever I see someone giving this advice, I want to rush out and fling myself in his path. Don't listen!

Reading isn't a virtue. It's a vice. And like most time-honored vices - smoking, drinking, owning andirons shaped like dogs - it dies slowly. Once the thing that bound everyone together was their shared reading list. Everyone at college would read the same Great Books so they'd have something to talk about in the dining halls over the sound of lobster being served and women being kept out of the workforce. But then someone figured it out. "A classic," someone once noted, "is a book everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read."

Most people, quite sensibly, hate reading. Now, it's something people only start doing because they hear it might help them get into college, then find impossible to quit.

Reading is the ultimate solitary vice. You can't really do it with other people - reading aloud is for Victorian families and the homeless man at my Barnes and Noble who habitually declaims long passages from books on Scientology. You can watch TV with people. Read together? That's like saying, "Sorry, I would rather spend time with someone who does not exist than with the person I am sitting next to now." With the Internet, you're surrounded and barraged from every side even when you appear to be alone. With books, you're alone even in crowds.

So here's my advice to kids: Don't read.

They say books transport you to new places and introduce you to fascinating people. They neglect to mention that most of these people are fictional. That means, in terms a second-grader can understand, that you will not be invited to their birthday parties.

Sure, your essay about how much you identify with Holden Caulfield - title: "All My Best Friends Are Fictional" - might get you into college. And reading expands your vocabulary and makes you test better. But consider: you will probably not spend more than four to eight years in college. At the rate life expectancy is increasing these days, that is barely five percent of your life. And, in exchange for that, you will have to spend the rest of your time on Earth pretending that you know what everyone else is talking about.

And when they discover this, they will not like you. "I can't believe you've never seen Pretty In Pink!" your roommate screams. "We can't be friends!" "I sort of have," you say, trying to manufacture a memory of walking through a restaurant where it was playing on TV. "Want to talk about Faulkner?" you suggest.

This is when you learn the fundamental truth of life that nobody actually wants to talk about Faulkner, ever. Even when you are paying thousands of dollars a year to attend an institution where you can study English and talk about these things, and you arrive at a seminar set up for expressly this purpose, all anyone seems to want to do is nod off suddenly in the middle of the lecture and then wake up muttering something about being chased off a cliff by a wild zeugma.

Reading is supposed to give you more interesting thoughts and a colorful prose style. But then again Snooki has a colorful prose style, and if she has ever read a book that didn't have a shirtless man on the cover, I'll eat my weight in goslings.

And reading doesn't even make you less sedentary. It's worse than television - you can watch TV on the treadmill! I once tried to read a book on the Terror in the French Revolution while working out and I kept falling off the Stairmaster and almost being decapitated.

Sure, reading helps prevent you from going at Stop signs, and it makes playing Monopoly marginally easier. Yes, you will develop an imagination and travel in the realms of gold, as some guy once said in some book somewhere. But where does it get you? You will experience other lives and expand your memories to include those of strangers, making all your thoughts needlessly complicated and forcing you to reference things. Meanwhile, everyone else in your peer group will be watching High School Musical. All I'm saying is, it's probably not worth it.

By Alexandra Petri  | February 4, 2011; 10:22 AM ET
Categories:  Bad Advice, Petri  | Tags:  kids these days, reading, reality  
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Comments

As a fellow reader who last saw a non-animated movie (I have young children) in 2006, I laughed out loud at this. Thanks for making me less alone in the crowd.

Posted by: volleymom | February 4, 2011 12:55 PM | Report abuse

I guess this is supposed to be funny, but it has more than a whiff of elitism to it. The writer is aware, I suppose, that it is possible to both read "serious literature" and enjoy popular culture.

Posted by: bertram2 | February 4, 2011 1:11 PM | Report abuse

This is an awful piece because it's supposed to be funny but it can be read as serious.

If it was a stand-up piece done well, that might be different.

Posted by: cmecyclist | February 4, 2011 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Hilarious! Thank you from a fellow reader.

Posted by: ado211 | February 4, 2011 2:11 PM | Report abuse

I too have faced the pesky problem of not knowing the TV show everybody else is talking about. Fortunately if you spend enough time turning down social invitations in favor of reading, those friends will go away and leave you to your books.

Posted by: csdiego | February 4, 2011 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Who is this Faulkner? Is he Snooki's boyfriend?

Posted by: jimward21 | February 4, 2011 2:23 PM | Report abuse

I must correct one thing -- it is possible to read while working out. I just finished a session on the elliptical machine while reading. A treadmill is much easier, though--less up & down motion. You just need to really focus on the page.

Posted by: reader16 | February 4, 2011 2:26 PM | Report abuse

hehe - that was funny... and even so true!

Well, there's one small point I don't agree with. A classic is a book that is great reading - if just you just were mature enough.

You can to try to enjoy Hamlet as a teenager - just take your time - and you will understand it much better.

The joys and suffering of life help you appreciate much better the vice of reading books.

Posted by: carlos4 | February 4, 2011 5:19 PM | Report abuse

Books? What are they? Does anyone still read words on dead trees?

It's so much more fun to light up a screen full of pixels to read something, and then bang on a plastic thing and insult the author before she can even finish her Reuben.

Posted by: divtune | February 4, 2011 10:25 PM | Report abuse

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