For as long as I’ve had a reading life, it has largely been defined by two facts: that I’ve always had a reading level way above my age bracket, and that I’m a fast reader. When I was younger, I didn’t like borrowing novels from the library as much because I preferred to read at my own pace and on my own schedule without a due date looming over me. But once I started studying English literature, where my skills as a fast reader have surely been put to the test, I started to realize how much more reading for pleasure I could get done by reading more from the library.
This was also around the time I joined Goodreads, where I continue to discover more and more books I would have otherwise never come across. Coupled with my habit to read compulsively in response to my existential neuroses, I eventually became a person who would check out an unrealistic amount of books from the library and force himself to read them as fast as possible just to feel something. The coronavirus pandemic has put an end to that, for worse and for better.
To say that the last year has forced everyone everywhere to reevaluate their priorities would be a vast understatement, and I’m very well aware of where the ability to freely browse a library or bookstore ranks. I’m incredibly grateful that my library has offered a “contactless loan” service to pick up reserved books and such. But if multiple quarantines and lockdowns have shown me anything, it’s that when you are forced to spend time by yourself surrounded by nothing but your own belongings, your emotional baggage starts to surround you as well. For the first time in a good five years, I was forced to confront the reasons why I tend to read so much so fast, and begin relearning how to actually read for the simple act of pleasure.
I’m sure every voracious reader has different reasons for buying a book versus getting it from their library (hello — the library is free), but for me, I started to realize that getting books from the library was not always about not wanting to shell out the money for a new hardcover: it was about the fact that I tend to use books and knowledge as defense mechanisms, that I define myself too much by how many books I’ve read. A friend once convinced me to download the Co-Star astrology app, and after one of the first notifications I got read “nobody cares how many books you’ve read,” I promptly deleted it. Who needs that kind of personal attack when they open their iPad? Surely not I. In truth, since studying books at the academic level and pursuing a career where I could perhaps write one of my own someday, who cares how many books I’ve read, you ask? I did. I cared, and I cared far too much.
Upon a nice, long look at the coldhearted reality of my to-read shelf on Goodreads, I realized that way too many of the books had been added with the intention of reading them from the library solely for the sake of appearing informed, rather than the fact that I was genuinely interested in the subject. During times where I’ve felt disconnected from other areas of life, I’ve purposely thrown myself too harshly into my passion for books and pop culture just to, once again, feel something. Of course, in a perfect world, it’s still nice to read something informative so that we might have an interesting topic to bring up in conversation, whether in person or on social media. But in an age of social isolation where feeling joy or pleasure is few and far between — let alone the fact that the library is more or less closed — is reading solely for the sake of feeling informed or worthy really worth the trouble? It wasn’t for me.
Once I started buying more new books online to add to my physical collection as browsing in person became unavailable, a strange and unusual thing began to happen: I was actually reading…slower? Without the unspoken pressure of having to read a library book within the given loan period, I was finding myself taking the time to savor and enjoy what I was reading, since there was no rush. Even pre-pandemic, when I would buy a highly anticipated title because I knew I’d want to own it, I was still always reading as fast as possible because there was always more — more trips to the library, more hot titles coming out soon, more information, more books. But without the ability to just waltz into a library or bookstore whenever I felt like it, I was beginning to appreciate, for the first time in a long time, the joy and pleasure in actually taking my time with a book. The world slowed down, so it was about time I did, too. Especially since brutal reading slumps have occurred much more often in the last year, so relearning how to appreciate and enjoy a book in the moment has been an immensely valuable skill.
Any time the library calls to let me know I have a book ready to be picked up (a recent email indicated that I’ve currently reached the limit for hold requests — baby steps, dear reader), that familiar jolt of anxiety hits me in the stomach: crap, now I have to finish what I’m reading as fast as possible because seven other people after me want this library book which means I can’t renew it and if I don’t read this book, life as we know it will of course come to a grinding halt. But guess what? Life as we knew it already came to a grinding halt, multiple times. So if, God forbid, I can’t finish a book as quickly or I don’t have time to read a library hold at the time that it’s ready for me? I guess I’ll just have to remember that the sky won’t fall if I don’t read a certain book at a certain time at a certain pace. As we have inevitably learned, there are worse things in the world.