On Becoming a Reader – Again

There’s a reason why I’m studying literature – it’s been one of my major passions for as long as I can remember. I couldn’t wait to learn how to read, so at the age of five I decided to have a go at it all by myself. It didn’t take me long to understand individual letters but when I picked up one of my mom’s books reading whole words and sentences turned out to be more complicated than I had anticipated. My mom quickly reassured me that this was perfectly natural: the book was written in English, a language I had never encountered before. The idea that people elsewhere spoke different languages never ceased to fascinate me and it’s probably one of the reasons why I’m currently doing what I’m doing.

Unfortunately, in the process I actually stopped reading. Of course I still read an endless pile of academic books, monographs, newspaper articles and research-related texts. But I somehow lost the ability to sit down with a book and become immersed in its world, just enjoy it for its own sake and spend hours and hours reading for pleasure. It’s a common problem, almost every literary scholar I know suffers from it. And most seem to accept it, after all, turning your hobby into your work seems like a small price.

But it saddened me. Every time I entered a bookshop it was full of books waiting to be read, yet I had no time to pick up even one of them. Or so it seemed. On the rare occasions where I actually bought a book or took it out of the library I failed to finish it. Sometimes I didn’t even start reading. I just couldn’t do it. Apart from frustrating, I also felt that it was an academic disadvantage. Despite being based in an American Studies department I still consider myself to be a literary scholar. How could I still claim to be one, however, if I never read a novel, a poem, or a play?

One of my new year’s resolutions was to change this situation. From 1 January 2014 onwards, I decided, every Monday would be Book Day. I would choose a book from the library or the unstable pile next to my bed and devote at least two hours reading it. It was surprisingly easy to find the time to do this; I just had to switch off my computer and television. And it turned out to be surprisingly easy. After two hours I’m usually well into the book and find it a lot easier to pick it up over the next few days. For the first time in months, I find myself finishing books. Enjoying them. Sometimes I even read two books per week.

It’s made a huge difference to my wellbeing and academic practice. I feel energized after reading, while watching TV usually makes me feel tired and intellectually bloated. I feel like I’m more on top of the literary field because I actively participate: I read (I also write, but more on that later). And I’ve discovered some wonderful new writers over the past few weeks.

Since 1 January, I have read the following books:

Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart by Joyce Carol Oates

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake

Necromancer by William Gibson

Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite

Push by Sapphire

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre

And I have a suspicion that I forgot some, so here’s another resolution: I’ll start keeping a list. At the moment, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City and John Fante’s Ask the Dust are waiting for me. I just dipped a toe in the stream of Tales and decided that it will accompany me on the train tomorrow, on my way to Milton Keynes. I’m not sure what to look forward to more: the training which is my reason for going to Milton Keynes in the first place, or the delightful prospect of being able to indulge in the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll of 1970s San Francisco. To be continued…

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