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So, what are you reading?
Below every social-media profile -- or even prominently attached to it -- should be a list of the books a person is reading at the moment. The great curse of social media is that everyone gets a sense for what short-form things others are reading right now -- articles, memes, and other bursts of thought -- but rarely do we find out what others are consuming more deeply (and, hopefully, more thoughtfully).
■ Sure, there are tools for sharing one's ongoing reading progress (like Goodreads), and there is plenty of room to share "favorite" books on a Facebook profile, but those are deliberate acts. Some might even call them performative -- it's easy to say you've read "War and Peace", but was that really something you did 20 years ago?
■ It's easy to take solace in self-identifying with the help of a contemporary label. That's what makes it so appealing to take a personality test and identify with an easy shorthand biography ("I'm an ENTJ!"), and it's why people struggle to find very specific names for their political affiliations (like Red Dog Democrats and Country-First Conservatives).
■ But not only are we individuals more complex than easy archetypes would suggest, we're also works in progress. Human nature may generally be deeply unchanging, but individuals can, do, and should evolve over time. And one of the ways people change is through reading. Look all you want, but you'll almost never find a more efficient tool of knowledge transfer than a well-written book. Books force discipline and clarity of thought upon the writer, and when a book is written well, it can be useful for readers for generations to come.
■ Nor are non-fiction books the only useful ones. Even the "Great Books" curriculum leans heavily upon literature. There are plenty of books that would never pass for "high art" that can still be good for the reader. Sometimes, it's because the underlying message is significant (see, for instance, the works of Douglas Adams, which would never pass for highbrow, but yet are guaranteed to be read centuries from now). Other times, it's good for the reader in that moment. Even the trashiest novels have their proponents.
■ Instead of trying hard to find satisfying ways to identify ourselves based upon who we think we are (or what we'd like others to think of us), it would actually be a great exercise to tell one another what thoughts we're allowing to rattle around inside our brains through the act of reading. The act of reading a book isn't necessarily about agreeing with the author -- properly done, it's about grappling with the ideas inside. That's why librarians make such a cause out of defending banned books.
■ What we're reading (or if we're reading nothing at all) can have a profound effect on who we're in the process of becoming. Sharing that would be a much more satisfying way to self-identify than any stale old labels we borrow from others.