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How I got back to reading

In college, my English class required reading a novel. I was only interested in college to learn a practical skill. The skill would allow me to get out of the classroom and make a living. Programming classes taught me just that. English classes? Not so much. The novel in question was The Assistant by Bernard Malamud. I didn’t buy the book. Well, I was broke. I could barely afford signing up for class, and the re-sell value of a novel is negligible. Instead, I borrowed the book from a classmate and read it in its entirety in one night.

I loved self-help books. I found them practical. With self-help you can apply whatever it is the book is promising to help with directly into your life. But what do you do with a novel like the Assistant? Other than its entertainment value and school grade value, why should I know the story? How do I apply what I read into my life. It was useless. That year, I dropped out of college because I could no longer afford it, and the Assistant was the last book I read from cover to cover.

In the decade that followed, I’ve only read a chapter here and there from books recommended by peers. I was not missing out. I’d often read Wikipedia entries, or skim over Cliffs Notes to get the gist of things. But I did not make time for the slow digestion that books require. I justified my lack of reading with the garbage in, garbage out principle. And we all know that most books are garbage. Who needs books when we have the Internet?

The imponderable bloom, declared by a discredited philosophy to be the actual essence of intercourse, was rightly ignored by the Machine, just as the imponderable bloom of the grape was ignored by the manufacturers of artificial fruit. Something “good enough” had long since been accepted by our race. — The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

I worked as a programmer for a decade, and I’ve come to accept that most self-help books are also garbage. Never have I thought that one day, I’d read a novel and think it would be useful to me. But books came back to me when I started to realize that programming is not the science of fixing computer problems. At work, I had no trouble fixing bugs, or finding clever hacks to solve our problems. What I had trouble with was dealing with people. The more competent I was becoming in my field, the more I struggled with people misunderstanding me.

The book that triggered it all didn’t come to me. Instead, it came to my brother. My brother was new to the United States and he was learning English. He found a book left behind by my younger sister in her High school years. It was a simple book, easy enough to read even for an ESL student. The day after he had found it, he came out of his bedroom with the book in hand and excitement in his eyes. He had read it all.

I was in the living room when he came in. I muted the movie about a boy and a tiger that was playing on TV, and my brother sat down. He told the story of Santiago the shepherd. He had memorized the whole thing. It was as if the story spoke straight to his heart, ignoring the fact that he didn’t understand half the words in the book.

I patiently listened while he told the story. I couldn’t help but be fascinated. His words were answers to questions I had been struggling with. At work, I felt like I was being treated unfairly and I didn’t know how to approach the problem. Here was my brother telling me what I needed to do through a fictitious story someone else had written. When he finished his tale, the sun had gone down, and the boy had reached the shore…[ ]

What do you think?

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