The serendipity of irrelevant reading

From biblical theologian Wesley Hill in First Things:

Irrelevant reading is the sort of reading you do when you pick up a book that, you fear, has nothing whatever to say to your present concern, the thing that’s driving you to want to read in the first place. Say you’re a teacher and you want to learn more about your craft. You may pick up Ken Bain’s marvelous book What the Best College Teachers Do and read it dutifully, annotating the margins and writing pieces of advice to yourself about next year’s lesson plans. But then, on your nightstand, say, you plop Chaim Potok’s novel The Promise down, since you’ve told yourself you’d read it ever since finishing its prequel The Chosen a couple of years ago. Late one night, you stay up and finish it. And you read that gripping scene in the yeshiva where the protagonist Reuven is quizzed mercilessly about arcana from the Talmud, and suddenly, you see not only the kind of teacher you need to be (Socratic, inspiring, relishing the mysterious complexity of your subject) but also find the inspiration you need to finish that next lecture. Your supposedly irrelevant fiction reading becomes more, or at least as, important to you as your allegedly more relevant textbook. And you grasp intuitively what my friend Luke Neff once put into a pithy saying: “Cultural omnivores make the best teachers.”

. . . Not all reading should be “irrelevant.” Some should be assiduous study of the key texts in one’s field. Other reading, the especially pleasurable kind, should be purely recreational. But when one is reading widely, there’s a special kind of delight that emerges when an evidently immaterial book suddenly intersects with what you most need to know in that moment. There’s no telling when such a moment may arrive, so it’s best to keep up a habit of irrelevant reading.

I sometimes tell my students the most important reading they’ll do for one of my classes at the seminary where I teach may well be the reading I never thought to assign.

MORE: “In Praise of Irrelevant Reading

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD and GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES.

Posted on April 22, 2015, in Education, Personal Development and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I started going to an Anglican church. I am constantly bombarded throughout my life with the idea that Jesus or Christianity or religion is fulfilling. I agree with the gnostics who wrote about being filled and lacking, I try to pay attention to ideas having to do with lack in popular culture like the new Studio Ghibli film, and I pay attention to Jesus when he teaches about emptiness.. for example.. when he says I will destroy this temple and raise it up in three days then it is said but he was speaking of the temple of his body, that’s more or less what my focus is in the study of literature is focusing on the body like the cathartic movement in the depiction of the mariner’s offering of the albatross to the deep in Coleridge’s poetry, as a self-offering and lament for the underworld.. as a Christ figure.. Christ doesn’t come to coddle us but to rip us apart. I’ve tried asking priests about that idea like what should I read besides playing video games like Bloodborne or whatever else happens to come across me on its own but so far haven’t been able to get anywhere with my interests in Christianity at all. My interests are purely negative and I’m confronted with positive readings of everything.

    This trailer is new if anyone hasn’t seen it yet get on the hype train for this film it’s portraying spirituality in a very negative way. It’s very much a film focused on loss. The line right before a cut to a hill of imposing torii gates is “I want to be someone else”. That really struck a chord with me.

  2. The creepiest thing is when I pick up a book looking to find a particular experience and then end up being right . This novel was terrible but it’s about a guy who goes for some ESP and then “gets killed” , the lack is called the Glotch , a psychic weapon similar to the idea of being Grok’d in Stranger In A Strange Land, only it’s from the Grok’d perspective. Terrible book. It’s called Slave Ship by Frederik Pohl.

    “Living things. Telepathic. Tiny. Below the threshold of visibility. They seek to communicate when they sense the subtle esper flow; and because their structure and ours cannot exist together – they die. And perhaps that could be borne, but we die too. As you know.”

  3. I prophesies that eventually people will know about scholarship such as Sinister Yogis by David Gordon White, or Haunting the Buddha by Robert DeCaroli, and understand the chaoskampf at the heart of the premise “being filled AND [because of!] -LACKING-” , but it is really an eerie experience to sit across from priests , get coddled, or told to look up, when I study the experiences in … really mainstream religions.. written by scholars who have gone through the facade to what lies behind it and are sincere in their scholarship about the truth of life, that really these are all temples of death. There aren’t many Whitley Striebers in the world. But they get the most popular appeal. There is no life loving video game. Popular appeal, and negativity, and I mean silence and emptiness and soul destruction , are coeval. Lord of the Rings wouldn’t be what it is without a dude getting killed from the inside out. Eventually I will be told by a priest if I want to understand a Christian world view, and self sacrifice, to read James De Mille’s A Strange Manuscript Found In A Copper Cylinder. It’s very hard to take my own interest in Christianity seriously at all. I really do think eventually people will, simply notice, the scholarship being done of negative religious experiences as the true ones. It is very awkward to be interested in Christianity looking for negative experiences when they’re simultaneously so heavily discouraged. I feel like I am moonwalking into a church and talking backwards with everything I am actually looking for.

  4. I want to see a positive review of Bloodborne , about death and resurrection , on Christianity Today magazine, then I can die happy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *