Reading as Protest: How I Manage the Guilt of Reading in Tumultous Times

I may be young, but I know for certain that this era is one of the most difficult in world history—particularly for people of color, particularly for LGBTQ folks, particularly for women, particularly for people with disabilities, particularly for people in poverty, particularly for anyone who is other than a white, cisgender, heterosexual, able, wealthy man. The last few years have seen a seeming increase in protests. It’s hard not to feel as if we must be actively resisting at all times. If we step away from our efforts for a break, we might as well just give up in total, right?

Every time I pick up a book, I feel this. Why should I be reading when there are children and adults in “detention centers” with horrific conditions? Why should I be flipping through pages when people are being murdered for being themselves? How can I justify a few hours of contentment with a book when the so-called leader of my country is, at a minimum, a blatant racist?

The thing is, resistance fatigue is a real thing. If we’re going to be any good at fighting the good fight, it’s imperative we take breaks. This means, sometimes not only is it the case that I “just can’t,” but also that I “just shouldn’t.” One of my favorite sayings is this: You can’t pour from an empty cup. Essentially, this means if you’ve got no energy and are running on empty (whether that’s emotionally, mentally, physically—whatever is relevant to your cause at the time), you are of no use to anyone until you’re recharged. If reading is how you recharge, it is well within the realm of morals to read.

This doesn’t mean that your reading must be cause-related, either. In fact, the likelihood that you’ll burn out even harder when even your breaks are touched by the thing you’re breaking from is high. Yes, Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson is an incredibly important piece on racism in America—but it will wait. The book, sitting perhaps by your bedside, is not going anywhere. You will get more out of it when you return to it refreshed. Take a swipe at those doing the oppressing by coming to the fight fully energized and prepared. Chances are, they will be unimpressed and undaunted by the actions you perform on fumes alone. They deserve your full fury—you deserve your full fury. Let it fill.

For those of us with privilege, we must remember that the ability to “take a break” is in and of itself a privilege. Not everyone has that luxury. Be mindful of that, most of all.

There’s also this, when the idea of filling my empty cup is not sufficient to keep the guilt away: “They” (whoever your “they” is) may want to wear you down. They may want you unhappy or even suffering or, yes, even dead. And what a slap in the face it is to them to instead choose to do things you enjoy, reading included. How brave it is to choose to live happily in the face of those who wish you only misery. What a gift it is to both yourself and your cause to say, in a way, as Sarah did to Jareth in Labyrinth, “You have no power over me.”

Reading is protest. Reading for pleasure is protest. A life worth living is not just one in which you’ve left your positive mark on the world, but also one that you have enjoyed. When the former overly encroaches on the latter, your life certainly may have been worth something to others, but not worth it for you. It is not selfish to look out for yourself, particularly when doing so is in pursuit of allowing the best version of yourself to take on the world at a later time.

So read when you are weary of the fight. Read to tap into the passions you might have had should you had been born in another time or with other resources. Read to escape from the horrors of the world. And read for the future—our children will thank you.

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