Our Reading Lives

PhD Student of Literature: I Don’t Remember the Last Time I Enjoyed a Book

Gema Charmaine Gonzales is a Paris-based writer originally from the Philippines. Her mother wanted her to become a professional singer. She instead became a PhD literary researcher in the Sorbonne-Nouvelle. She still performs in front of an audience, but she is often seen holding index cards instead of a microphone. Her ideal day is spent with a thick historical novel and a glass of milk tea.

I love reading. My decision to embark on a PhD in Literature, which meant spending half a decade or more hitting the books (both figuratively and literally), probably gave that away. Before beginning my Masters in Comparative Literature, I was reading an average of two novels a week. During my Masters, two books a semester was the best I could do. And in my first year of PhD, you guessed it, a whopping zero. For someone who went out of her way to spend life with books, I am amazed by how little time I have to actually read them.

Let me clarify: I do read. In fact, I read a minimum of four hours every day. During the first half of my PhD, I was devouring books on an average of 50 bibliographic texts monthly. But this wasn’t the kind of reading I looked forward to. In the notorious “Review of Related Literature” stage, reading is shorthand for highlighting, annotating, some more highlighting, summarizing and synthesizing. It meant dissecting every word, analyzing stylistics or creating a dialogue between theory and corpus. It was a work type of reading.

When I say I haven’t read a book, I am alluding to the absence of enjoyment that drew me to its universe in the first place. Reading for me is reinvigorating, life-affirming and thought-provoking all at once. It is a joyride where my mind could go to places it has never been to or never been allowed to go to before. But sometimes, bound by the technical details of a work, the magic disappears. The critical mind looking for an overarching theme or a recurrent lexical field starts spoiling the fun.

What we read is just as important as why we read. Doing a PhD in Literature made me realize the value of reading for pleasure, of reading for and to ourselves. One of my professors randomly started a discussion on the question, “How difficult is it to do nothing?” For some reason, I started thinking about reading for nothing. Perhaps I am not alone to imagine that for literature majors who have devoted hours learning about critical theory, reading for oneself or for pleasure has become nearly impossible.

Like any other researcher, I find myself needing to deconstruct my argument and justify my perspective. I do not wish to advocate reading passively. Literary researchers are interpreters. We understand and we see how literature speaks, how it influences. A beautifully weaved tapestry of words is just as powerful as a discourse driven by ideology. Books help us understand issues that matter. Indeed, only in their pages can certain perspectives be raised. 

But at the end of the day, we are also readers who seek beauty in words. And this beauty we seek sometimes resides in the unsaid. Perhaps, not everything is up for interpretation. Perhaps, some words are best left in a veil of mystery. I’d like to think that we do not need to understand something in order to be moved. Words inspire, without us having to explain why it does. 

I believe that it is necessary to reflect on our reasons for reading, lest we forget how it can help us on a personal level. The enjoyment of reading should not be a cause for guilt. It should be a welcome recreation. We can look to books to find happiness, to better ourselves, to relieve stress or alleviate a bad day.

Today’s note to self is to go back to that time when I read books like they weren’t mere data, that time when I read books simply for me and for the beauty of it.