In praise of self-assigned reading

By Andrew Hammond

Hello! My name is Andrew Hammond and I represent a portion of the left side of the opinion spectrum formally known as the Viewpoints Section.

During the year, my writing will anger those of you who don’t agree with me and disappoint those of you who do. But before we usher in a new year of ordered chaos, I thought I might make a case for something upon which all Chicago students, regardless of their politics, can agree—namely, the case for self-assigned reading.

This article has one purpose. I want to convince you that some of the best books you read during your years here on campus might not be ones listed on a syllabus. That kind of independence might seem out of place for a school that believes it knows what’s (academically) good for you. But bear with me.

Once the Gatsby-like revelry of O-Week ends, you will find yourself dropped into an ocean with no life jacket. When I told my mom I wanted to go to the U of C, she asked if it might not be better for me to go to a school that was not as much of an academic juggernaut. As she put it, “You have to ask yourself, would I rather be a big fish in a small pond, or a big fish in a big pond.”

For the record, I don’t share my mom’s confidence in my size relative to any pond. But my mother underestimated the U of C. It isn’t a big pond. It’s the Bermuda Triangle.

Initially, you will feel small in this academic environment, and for good reason. You’ll be taking classes from professors who wrote the books that professors at other schools use to teach their courses. Your teaching assistants will be just as impressive. They just haven’t written those books yet. Add on to that the legions of geniuses the University welcomes to campus every year for panels and book signings, and you begin to realize how small you truly are.

Why am I using aquatic metaphors and overwrought words of discouragement for an article whose purported purpose is to persuade you to read what you want to read? I wrote those words so you knew the terms of your matriculation.

Reading books that fascinate you, in the face of hundreds of pages of assigned reading, keeps that kernel of intellectual confidence alive. It allows just enough oxygen to ensure that the candle doesn’t go out. You are all brilliant minds. Yet the College is designed to convince you that that brilliance is not enough. And they’re right. But by reading what you want, you make a space for your own intellectual pursuit, one that is free of classmates’ criticisms, professors’ prattle, and yes, the pressure of grades.

Let me give you a few examples. First, books can keep you sane. The winter of my first year, I was starving for a novel. The only fiction I had read for the last six months were written by Athenian men two and a half millennia ago. I picked up an anthology of Dashiell Hammett’s novels from Powell’s Books. You cannot imagine how comforting it was to read about murders in a California mining town during a brutal Chicago winter.

Second, you’ll never know when those books might help. My second year, I picked up the first volume of Arthur Schlesinger’s history of the New Deal. I couldn’t put it down, and proceeded to read the rest of the series. I might have been better served reading my assigned reading during spring quarter, but when I showed up for my internship in New York that summer, my new boss was happy to discover that I knew a few things about the topic of her thesis: the Works Progress Administration.

Finally, these books can be the beginnings of your own independent research. My third year, I found myself pouring over a controversial book entitled Why Americans Hate Welfare. I discussed the book with a professor I knew, and it led to an independent study the following quarter.

So read something. Read some 19th-century British poetry. Read a murder mystery. Read a biography of someone who is untouched by Greek Thought and Literature or the Classics of Social and Political Thought. Reading what your professors want you to read is valuable and necessary, but don’t let it prevent you from reading on your own. It will keep you sound of mind. It will prove useful. And it might be the start of your own scholarship.

When this University was founded, the trustees insisted that professors and students ignore the titles of academia such as doctor or professor, and instead call everyone by Mr. and Ms. That tradition is not well known today, but the spirit that animated that tradition remains strong. This University casts a perpetual vote of confidence for every member of our community. Reading books on your own is a way to remind you of your alma mater’s confidence during this most humbling time.