Can a book replace face-to-face mentoring?

Written by Justin Preston

In a recent post, Jesse Wisnewski stated the claim that, for those having trouble finding an in-person mentor, learning from the books teaching the lessons of history can be a useful supplement. To be clear, Wisnewski is not saying that reading a book is the same as having a face-to-face conversation with someone you trust and from whom you seek to learn.

His argument, instead, is as follows:

For any book, a great author will spend hours researching their topic, clarifying their thoughts, and writing his or her ideas on a page. Their writing will be reviewed by peers and placed through a grueling editing process, which will further enhance their arguments. By the time their book is published, it will contain some of the best advice they have to offer. So, if you need to solve a problem, answer a question, or learn a new skill, there’s a good chance you can find what you’re looking for in a book.

Wisnewski offers some helpful tips in ways to get the most out of reading a book by looking at it as something of a one-way conversation you, as the reader, are holding with the author:

  1. Ask questions, and not just any questions. Four suggested questions are: What is the book about? What is being said in detail, and how? Is the book true, in whole or part? What of it? These are questions that you can ask yourself throughout the book to gain the most insight into the lessons the author may be trying to impart.
  2. Write in your book (assuming it is actually your book and not the library’s book or someone who doesn’t want their book to be marked up). By writing in the margins, underlining important sentences, and jotting down notes of interest, you move from becoming a passive reader to an engaged participant. For those who frequent the library and would like to continue to do so, having a designated notebook set aside for jotting down page numbers, questions, and thoughts can be a useful alternative.
  3. Review your notes, don’t just let them gather dust. Reviewing the results of your engagement with the reading can help you retain the lessons of the book and draw connections across books.

On the whole, Wisnewski’s argument can be useful when you are seeking to solve a single problem. This can be a utilitarian issue, such as learning about how people in your field of work or study have solved a particular problem you are facing. It can also be more health-focused, as recent research has found that individuals diagnosed with depression who participated in guided semi-weekly reading groups tackling serious literature and poetry saw significant gains in their mental health.

However, mentoring relationships are often about more than just solving single problems or gaining skills. Those can be important aspects, but the support and social connection a mentoring relationship provides has numerous spillover effects.

There’s no reason, though, that Wisnewski’s ideas couldn’t be integrated into a mentoring relationship. If your mentee expresses an interest, joint reading and discussion can be low-resource way of spending time together and developing a better sense of each other. Beyond the mentoring relationship, reading has numerous positive impacts for youth, with implications for their academic and professional outcomes.

So how can mentors go about integrating joint reading into their mentoring activities? Research provides some insights:

  1. Plant the seed: Those who participate in free reading are motivated to read more (Pilgreen & Krashen, 1993). Formal mentoring organizations often structure regular meetings for mentor-mentee meetings, and these times, set aside in otherwise busy schedules, can be an opportunity for the mentor to provide the mentee space to engage with books. That engagement can have lasting effects in reading years later.
  2. Take a field trip: Going to a nearby public library can be an opportunity for mentees to talk to librarians, ask questions, and get direction to age and development-appropriate literature. This can prompt greater interest in reading in the mentee.
  3. Make interesting reading available: Students with a love of reading often reported that it flowed from one “home run” experience (Trelease, 2001). That is, they had a very positive experience with reading a particular book. Researchers, when asking students about their “home run” books, received a broad range of titles (Von Sprecken, Kim, and Krashen, 2000). This would underscore the importance of creating opportunities to engage with a rich variety of reading material.

Promoting reading as a way to learn and expand ideas can help to foster better insight for the mentor on what issues and concepts are engaging their mentee the most. This understanding can be helpful in boosting the quality of a match that may not be as accessible through other activities.

So while a book can never replace the benefits of a quality mentoring relationship, a book can certainly be an important part of a mentee’s (and mentor’s) relational development.

Are there any particular books that sparked your love of reading? What about books that your mentees have found engaging, or that you have enjoyed discussing with them? Let us know in the comments below!