I was recently filling out a college application and found myself stumped by a prompt, one that I put off until the end. The prompt was simple enough, and on the surface seemed to be straight forward: Name one book that has influenced you the most. As a person who doesn’t really read books for leisure, I couldn’t really think of one off the top of my head, but a thought lingered as I stared at my computer glowing computer screen, what exactly does this question mean to me? Again, on the surface it appeared to be a very simple question, and I’ve read books for both school and on the rarest of occasions for leisure, but I had never thought about those pieces of literature in the context of influence, mainly because I feel that each influence up to this point was of equal importance. So, then, how do I respond? These questions, or prompts, are designed to help the prospective student differentiate themselves, to ask questions that aren’t typically asked during conversation but are also general enough that nobody is supposed to feel alienated by the question. I wasn’t sure what to do.
So I began to ask others.
What was interesting was that at first, a good number of those people tried to answer the question for me, but after a quick interjection and clarification that I was asking them what their answer would be if asked the same question, the answers began to trickle in. For the most part, let’s unscientifically say 82% of people, folks responded with various books, from the Bible to Animal Farm, The Giving Tree to The New Jim Crow. It was what I had expected to hear, albeit the reasons why it was influential were different and incredibly interesting, they were asked to name a book and so they did. There were a small few of the responses, let’s say 16% of people, that named Art books, picture books and others that take form of a book, but aren’t literature. Then there were the answers that threw me off, the remaining 2% of people asked, when they responded with ideas of a book. They talked about books that exist within a piece of literature, a book in a movie, or the scroll that they’d seen while at a museum traveling abroad. As with every response as to why, each was incredibly interesting, but what struck me was the interpretation to the question, one that by all accounts seems straight forward. What I’d found was that it wasn’t, and not only did it make the question a little more difficult to answer, but I felt further away from the response I would need to finish my applications.
Now, I am a pleaser by nature (among a bunch of other contradictory characteristics), so I wanted to answer the question in the way that I felt it should be answered, but to do so while staying true to the presumed purpose of the question, to stand out. In true fashion, I answered in the only way I knew how, abstractly and with an extra bit of explanation.
After I finished, I promptly submitted my applications but a fragment of doubt sat in my lap. Did I respond well enough? Were they looking for an actual book or would they frown upon the response? The largest reason why I submitted so quickly is because I knew I’d question myself after and so I wanted to be sure they got the most honest response, not something crafted or even the slightest bit untrue to myself. After all, that’s what they are hoping for, right? I don’t know – – but that’s alright.
There have been plenty of times where I’ve questioned myself, wondered if I was indeed thinking too tough about something that, in truth, is a small piece of the overall pie. There will be many more, I’m certain of that, but that excites me. It excites me because when I question myself, I am making connections that I wouldn’t normally make, and most will be a stretch but I am of the mind that most things at some point are a stretch, at least in the beginning. Exploring the universe, traversing oceans, becoming an adult, flight, or attending Yale. Each of those is or were a stretch at some point, connections I would not have made if I hadn’t questioned myself, been prepared to be wrong, been humbled when I was right, or allowed myself to think outside what was supposed to be. Just because something is a stretch does not mean it won’t happen or can’t happen at some point, and certainly doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be given real consideration. I’ve been told to stop thinking in the what if, but those same people do it as well, I just choose to pose the question in terms of positive plausibility and think that most do. Most will.
I have faced facts, but if I have learned anything over the course of my short life, it’s that facts are not understanding. So I face understanding so that I can lovingly hold onto the facts and the fact is, making abstract connections are what helps me to understand. Positive plausibility helps me to understand. Soulful pliability helps me to love. Questioning helps me to hold on.