By Saya R. ’21
It’s probably a strange sight to see an eleven-year-old sitting on the ground at an amusement park reading. Even stranger if that eleven-year-old was reading a French parenting book called Bringing up Bébé. I had come across said book on an ancient kindle (the kind with real buttons you needed to press to turn the page) I had borrowed from my mom. It had a colorful cover, an intriguing title, and I was interested in France. It was simple, really. So there I was, eleven years old at Great America, deathly afraid of roller coasters, and engrossed in a book that wasn’t meant for me.
I remember having to log my silent reading on this sheet each week, and when my 5th grade teacher asked about the book, she laughed out loud. Perhaps it was because of the mature topic, though I don’t remember anything inappropriate (it probably just went over my head), but also because of how absurd it was that a fifth-grader in California would want to read about a New Yorker married to a Brit raising two children in Paris, essentially a how-to manual of raising children “the French way.” However, despite the absurdity, people are very rarely going to find a story that directly matches their life experience to the t. People are drawn to relevancy, but relevancy can appear in the most surprising of places.
Let’s take a mainstream example: Educated by Tara Westover. A memoir about a woman, youngest of seven, who grew up in a survivalist mormon family without access to education because her father thought he was protecting her from the Illuminati. Her story recounts her insane journey from childhood to Brigham Young University, Westover’s first step towards freedom, to eventually a Ph.D from Cambridge. Despite how unlike my own life Westover’s story was, I resonated with her book, and I am not alone in thinking so. Alec Macgellis, in a New York Times review of the book wrote, “Westover has somehow managed not only to capture her unsurpassably exceptional upbringing, but to make her current situation seem not so exceptional at all, and resonant for many others. She is but yet another young person who left home for an education, now views the family she left across an uncomprehending ideological canyon, and isn’t going back.” Even this is not something I relate to, being 17 years old and still in high school, and yet, what resonated with me was the message that education isn’t about knowing an army of facts, but rather, it’s about, as Westover said in an interview with the Aspen Institute, “acquiring a depth of understanding” that allows you to “see the world from another point of view.”
Although this message of gaining a depth of understanding wasn’t fully formed until I came across Educated, it was this same idea that motivated me to keep reading the books whose target demographic didn’t include me. For a few hours, I was able to experience the world from a completely different standpoint than my own. In fact, in an article titled “How to Be More Empathetic” from the New York Times, Claire Miller says that reading is one of the best ways to become more empathetic because by entering the “thoughts, heart, and mind of another person who is not like you,” it breaks down barriers. The article instructs readers to “choose novels with narrators who have lives and backgrounds unlike yours, or who live in a different place or time. Choose diverse authors, too.”
Random Facts I’ve Learned from Reading the Books Not Meant for Me
Sorry I was Late I Didn’t Want to Come: An Introvert’s Year to Living Dangerously by Jessica Pan:
There is an app called BumbleBFF which is like a dating app, but it's for making friends. Apparently, it is incredibly difficult to make friends after 30. This is because people either outgrow their friends (or become pickier about what they want), there isn’t time or repeated interaction required to make those same close connections, and there is a less of a chance to make it to settings which encourage people to let their guard down and participate in “deep talk.”
Bringing up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman:
French children are supposedly better at eating vegetables than American children because French parents don’t give up after their kid decides they don’t like a certain vegetable–they keep preparing the vegetable in different ways until the child becomes accustomed to the taste.
Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don't Know What You're Eating and What You Can Do about It by Larry Olmstead:
Olive oil isn’t well regulated by the FDA, and because fake versions of olive oil are so common (Olmstead says that olive oil “was the single most commonly referenced adulterated food of any type in scholarly articles from 1980 to 2010”), many Americans have never tasted real olive oil. There was even a case in the 1980s in Spain where 20,000 people were poisoned and 800 died because they accidentally consumed rapeseed oil (denatured with a toxin called aniline) under the label of olive oil.
In Bringing up Bébé, besides learning that French babies sleep through the night at two or three months old (based on context clues I am assuming this is impressive, but I have absolutely no frame of reference), I also experienced the author’s extreme loneliness of moving to Paris with no friends, without speaking the language and each joy she found in figuring out another so-called French secret about parenting. I later learned that this book, labeled “part memoir, part amateur anthropologie” by Forbes, sparked national debate because many people took issue with this singular French parenting style that Duckworth praised so much. From reading that same Forbes article, “Bringing Up Bebe? No Thanks. I’d Rather Raise a Billionaire,” I got the impression that Americans, or at least the author, Erika Ekiel, wanted to construct their own parenting style based on “a myriad of so-called experts.” But, when I was eleven reading this book, I didn’t care that this book was supposedly “filled with examples of children absorbing socialism.” In reading something that was so far out of my age range and stage of life, I was completely stripped of any defensiveness or prior knowledge that the critics seemed to have. I simply enjoyed the memoir side of the story and the process of putting myself in someone else’s shoes with the little moments of relevancy I found.
So, yes, while I may be called an absolute weirdo by my friends and get concerned looks from parents when they take a peek at my book list; finding relevance in the stories of people at a different stage of life, in a different part of the world, with completely different goals from my own is immensely valuable. Reading these books not meant for me showed me the parts of the human experience that most everyone can relate to and reminded me that I am not alone in these experiences and emotions. On the flip side, seeing the world through the eyes of someone so different from myself has taught me more about empathy–I felt for these people experiencing things I have not yet and may never go through. So, take that leap just like I did on a clunky Kindle in 2014 and read that book that isn’t meant for you.