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Books Can Be Dangerous. The Best Ones Should Be Labeled “This Could Change Your Life.” *

April 11, 2010

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.
• Oscar Wilde

The things that influence a person’s reading choices are another of life’s many chicken/egg questions. What comes first? Do we seek out books—or websites or magazines or other reading materials—because of what and who we are, looking for affirmation, or do the things we read influence who we become? Is there power in any kind of reading to truly change who a person is? No simple answers here.

I cannot imagine that anyone who writes for public consumption does not harbor some small hope that her or his words will make a difference for someone. Of course, writers intend to resonate with others of like mind, but there must also be some small secret dream that words can change minds.

I have long been a fan of Martin E.P. Seligman’s work. Seligman is the author of Learned Optimism (1990), a book that influenced my work with students in a dropout prevention program. His work in positive psychology also affirms my research into fun in learning. Focusing on the positive through discovery of students’ strengths and virtues and passions rather than targeting solely what they cannot do well is at the heart of my explorations into building students’ skills of interest and activating their desire to learn.

If students only learn to do adequately that which does not appeal to them, if they spend day after day doing things that they don’t enjoy or do well, if no opportunity is provided to become immersed in things that interest them, it’s not surprising that many students do not like school and that they view their experiences with teachers as largely adversarial. Teachers become people who keep smaller or younger or less experienced people from doing what they love, drowning them in a sea of “not fun.”

In 2001, my mother, a talented musician who started playing the piano by ear before she began kindergarten and a poet whose work has comforted hundreds of people, told me, “I just survived school. It had nothing whatsoever to do with who I wanted to be. My life in school was always about who and what I should be and keeping me pointed in that direction. You’re young and you don’t know better, so you buy into it, and even though you’re doing well, you know in your heart you’re not making the grade.” In 1988, three days before he died, my youngest brother, Greg, told me that he didn’t understand why I was hoping to become a teacher “because no one ever has any fun in school.”

I have a stack of books in my bedroom, overflow from multiple bookshelves in the room. The stack includes books I revisit and reread regularly because they remind me of important truths. Seligman’s (2002) book, Authentic Happiness, is in this pile. I remember it, oddly enough, when I am quasi-watching an episode of The Real Housewives of New York City (yes, I know this is trash, but I’m not really watching—just listening for breast quotations while I do other things).

It’s not just boobwords that tickle my antenna. I’m working on an exhibit I call The TechNObots about the human costs of technology, and when I hear Jill, one of the housewives, playing a months-old voicemail message for another housewife and a psychic, saying that she keeps it and listens to it to remind her to stay strong in her fight with the person who left the message, I hunt out Seligman’s book. Jill is wallowing in hurt feelings and determination not to forgive and her choice is not making her happy.

In Authentic Happiness, forgiveness and mercy is a category in the “signature strengths” the book helps people identify. I make myself a note to add to my TechNObot Collectory: technology makes it much easier to capture and cling to hasty or intemperate words spoken in anger and frustration. I also note a benefit of technology. If you’re looking for real life examples of psychological theory, reality television is a bonanza.

You need not buy a book to find lots of information about Seligman and his work, just Googling® his name will work. I recommend doing so if you are hoping to activate your inner relentless optimist.

Finding happiness in school takes work. You have to be determined to focus on your strengths and passions at the same time you’re working on things that interest you less or are more difficult for you to master. What are your strategies for building on your strengths and engaging your passions? What kind(s) of reading could help?

I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready and which have gone a little farther down our particular path that we have yet got ourselves.
• E.M. Forster (1951)
, Two Cheers for Democracy

School was the unhappiest time of my life and the worst trick it ever played on me was to pretend that it was the world in miniature. For it hindered me from discovering how lovely and delightful and kind the world can be, and how much of it is intelligible.
• E.M. Forster, British author whose epigraph to his 1910 novel,
Howard’s End, is “Only connect.”

* Thanks to Helen Exley for the title quotation.

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