On reading and not reading

After eight months of attempting to navigate the likes of Homer and Milton to Foucault to Althusser, perhaps my biggest challenge of the academic year has been teaching myself how to read “for fun” again. ‘But why are you studying literature if reading isn’t fun?’ I hear you enquire. Well, dear ask-er, this is the same question I have been repeatedly posing to myself.

I still love reading. On a daily basis I read tweets and blog posts and articles, but somehow the printed word off screen, on actual dead-tree-paper, has become intertwined with work and university and, even, (strangled gasp of horror) A-Levels. I open a book and my first thought is ‘how many pages until the end of the chapter?’ I find it difficult to reconcile the idea of books with relaxation and enjoyment rather than essays and deadlines. It’s been much more difficult than I thought it would be, but this summer I’ve been trying to work through it.

Even when I manage to fling myself over the metaphorical hurdle of picking up a book, I inevitably land with a thud on my arse as I tackle the next issue: what do I read? In seminars, I feel hopelessly, inadequately poorly read compared to the other people on my course. For example, I have never read an Austen or Bronte novel all the way through. In one seminar, the tutor assumed that everyone in the class had read Jane Eyre, and they were mostly correct. Everyone had, except me. Unsurprisingly, several assorted Austens and Brontes are on my to read list for this year, but why? Because I want to read them or because I feel like I should have read them? Probably a bit of both. But, as I spend my summer reading The Girl on the Train and other assorted, mostly contemporary works of fiction, I feel guilty. I don’t need to be reading this book. But does a book have to be a “classic” in order to be worth reading?

Because what even constitutes “good” literature? What is a classic? Does it have to be part of the canon? The overwhelmingly white, male, elitist, old-and-a-bit-wrinkly-with-liver-spots-on-its-hands canon? It’s no surprise that “chick lit” (a phrase that never fails to make me cringe) is often looked down upon and belittled; a genre written by women, for women. There’s crap to be found in every type of literature, so why does this particular nook of fiction have its “trashy” reputation?

(We all know why.)

Genres like chick lit or young adult fiction  (that, let’s be honest, aren’t really genres at all, but merely books that aren’t aimed at adult men and are therefore lumped together in their supposed inferiority) are unlikely to have a place on the A-Level curriculum anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t any good. A good book is a book you can’t put down, a book you actually want to read. Books that provide escapism, a reprieve from the everyday comings and goings of life, books that don’t require you to google the definition of every other word, are good books. Reading for relaxation is fine. Not everything you read has to be an intellectual endeavour.

This is what I’m trying to keep reminding myself.

Reading books aimed at young people, books aimed at women, books that wouldn’t be seen anywhere near a university reading list – reading books like this has helped me get back into reading this summer. Reading books that serve no higher purpose than simply to be enjoyed has helped to enjoy reading again and that, in my vacuous millennial opinion, is what makes a very good book indeed.

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