Perhaps the most egregious error many people make is to assume that the way they think is normative. When we operate from the assumption that other people see and make sense of the world the same way we do, we open ourselves to a world of hurt. Each of us is a unique bundle of knowledge, experiences, opinions, values, beliefs, perspectives, viewpoints, tastes, preferences and inferences. Each of us is a “world” unto ourselves. This reveals itself to be true dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times each and every day. Acknowledging this wealth of difference can be a grace. The problem arises when we stray into pointless arguments over “right/wrong,” “good/bad,” “smart/stupid,” “us/them” using our own normative perspective as our standard. A relatively harmless illustration of this occurred this morning for me.
I am a reader. I love books. I love holding books. I love buying books. I love reading books. I love listening to audiobooks. Today, at my beloved Beans and Cream coffee shop conversation turned to the HBO Game of Thrones series, and in the course of exchange someone asked me if I watched the show. My response was “no, but I have read the books.” The discussion took a weird turn.
“Oh, God, those books are huge! I tried reading one but kept getting stuck,” one person commented.
“It’s a lot more fun to just watch the shows!” another chipped in.
“How long did it take you to read them books?” asked someone else.
I paused for a moment and said, “I can’t tell you. I read them when they came out.”
“You read all of them?” the first person asked incredulously.
“Well, yeah, I read a lot,” I countered.
“Jeez, get a life! I’ve got too much to do to waste time reading,” he said.
Another piled on, “I really can’t remember the last book I read. Its been years.”
“So, when you say you read a lot, what’s that mean?”
“I average about four books a week,” I said. “The last time I read fewer than 200 books in a year was 1993.”
The small group of people gasped, guffawed, and grew derisive. “You ACTUALLY know that? What a nerd,” remarked one woman.
“Oh, my God,” said another woman. “I can safely say I haven’t read more than three books since grad school.”
“I honestly can’t believe someone would waste that much time, or money, for that matter. I’d rather live. I’ve got much better things to do with my time,” one of them said — to widespread agreement.
“You mean, like watch HBO?” I asked.
Now I know that my reading is unusual in our culture (though my wife keeps pace with me very well — plus she is a copy editor, so she reads professionally as well as for fun) but in my opinion our culture is the oddball, not me. I recently took an online survey about reading habits, and the responses to the questions spoke volumes. For example:
“How many works of fiction have you read in the past year? a) none, b) one, c) two, d) three or more”
Now, what this format says to me is that “none” is a very common answer and that reading four novels a year is considered exceptional. This seems to be a truly low bar.
I was talking with a clergy person retiring this year after 35 years of ministry. Looking at my library in my office he reflected, “I don’t know that I’ve read more than a dozen books since seminary. I’ve purchased hundreds, and started most of them, but I never seem to finish them.” I can’t quite conceive of a lifetime without reading. I find it amazing when I meet people who cannot conceive of a life of reading.
I am currently doing a “book purge” as I move into a new position — and as my health continues to deteriorate. Books are heavy, and I feel it is better to give them away now instead of making it someone else’s problem years from now. But as I sift and sort, it is as if I am giving away friends and family. I can remember where and when I read or reread each and every book. I know which I purchased in a bookstore and what I ordered on line. I don’t so much read books as develop a relationship with them.
When I offer leadership training events, I generally include a bibliography. It always surprises me when people will ask, “If I could only read one book on this list, which should it be?” or “Which one of these books is shortest?” or “Could you summarize these for us?” I have had people drop out of programs I lead when they find out there will be books they are expected to read.
Different worlds. I live in a reader’s world, but there are a whole bunch of people who do not. They are not stupid people. They are not shallow people. They are not lazy people. They are not uninteresting people. (For the most part, that is. I confess, I have met some stupid, shallow, lazy, uninteresting people — but it has nothing to do with whether or not they read…). But I’m not stupid or lazy or boring because I DO read, and it is interesting how quickly some folks move from judging a behavior or practice of a person to judging the value and character of the person based on said behavior. By our fruits, indeed, we become known — whether it is fair or not.
I wonder why it is so important to justify one’s own beliefs and behaviors by belittling those of others? Why must we think in “I’m right, you’re wrong/I’m good, you’re bad/I am superior, you are inferior” terms so much of the time? Why do we seem to deny courtesy, civility and respect to people who don’t think and do and believe as we do? I don’t have simple answers to any of these questions. But I’m sure they exist in a book somewhere.