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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