On not judging a book by its cover

Earlier this week, Richard Coles (@RevRichardColes) posted the following story on Twitter. I found it so striking that I asked if I could reproduce it here (he kindly said yes).

Talked to a woman tonight who grew up in tough town in north east of England and in her teens it all went horribly wrong … [O]ne day her teacher told her to stay after class and instead of the bollocking she was expecting he said ‘you think you’re nothing but you’re not’, and gave her a copy of ‘1984’. And then another book a week later and then another. Her friends’ lives stalled, one dying of a heroin overdose that could have killed her; but she went on to Cambridge and a PhD and is now a priest – because someone disagreed with her self-assessment as worthless and gave her a book.

This tale really speaks for itself, so I’m not going to distract from its value with a long commentary. What is clear, though, is not just the enduring power of books and reading as food for the soul, spirit or whatever you want to call it, but – more pointedly – how important it is to recognize and believe in people’s (often hidden) potential, and to act on your instincts in this area. I have no idea how many other pupils this teacher may have provided with books nor with what degree of  “success”, but somehow that pales into insignificance against the life-changing (or even life-saving) effect it clearly had on this one individual.

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4 Comments

Filed under Books & reading

4 responses to “On not judging a book by its cover

  1. I’ve come across a few sayings recently about how we judge ourselves, and our lives, and think you might enjoy them:

    Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. ~Albert Einstein

    Don’t let comparison steal your joy. ~unattributed

    The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everone else’s highlight reel. ~Steven Furtick

    Certainly, our current educational policies and culture do seem to judge kids and adults alike on their abilities to perform a small subset of life’s complex tasks and trials, and we, as a society, are far too quick to overlook the talents of the individual. Our drive for conformity has been at the expense of individuality, and at the expense of confidence in those who don’t fit in the mainstream.

    That second quote is a keenly observed truth, I think. It’s too easy to feel dissatsified, when comparing our own lives and achievements with those of others, but learning to find pleasure in what we have, what we do, what we achieve is a key path to happiness, in my opinion.

    And of course, the third quote builds on that with an important reminder… I remember learning that lesson in the arena of photography, when I realised that the work I loved from world class photographers was far less of 1% of the images they actually shot. If I judged my own work on the same basis, looking only at my top 1%, I suddenly felt far more thrilled with my achievements.

  2. Lee

    Rebecca – and Kavey too – I’ve felt very encouraged by reading this. Thank you! (and Kavey, I’ve swiped those quotes and am posting them where I can remind myself often).

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