An English Major’s Guide to Relearning How to Read for Pleasure

Jeffrey Davies


Jeffrey Davies is a professional introvert and writer with imposter syndrome whose work spans the worlds of pop culture, books, music, feminism, and mental health. In addition to Book Riot, his writing has appeared on HuffPost, Collider, PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and other places. Find him on his website and follow him on Twitter @teeveejeff and Instagram @jeffreyreads. He is also the co-host of a Gilmore Girls podcast, Coffee With a Shot of Cynicism.

I often think about how differently I consumed books before I started studying English literature. Books have always been my passion, of course, which is why I wanted to study literature in the first place. But the period of years I spent being graded on my ability to read and analyze quickly — far too quickly — also happened to be accompanied by the period in youth that is largely defined by existential angst. In other words, at 18, I quickly internalized the notion that my ability to read books fast should be the only point of my existence. And it predictably impacted the way I read everything, especially for pleasure.

As of this writing, I’m pleased to report that I have completed all the English credits required for my university degree, after which I told everyone close to me that I will never take an English class again if I can help it. Which is not to say that I hate English classes now or think they weren’t the right path for me — they 100% were. I just can’t possibly bring myself to write one more analytical essay about a piece of literature for academic purposes because I’m too busy trying to relearn how read for pleasure. Like, really read for pleasure.

Rest assured, if you happen to be in the same boat of relearning to read for pleasure after studying literature or similar fields, you know it’s not an easy process. I even keep this specific tweet in my bookmarks to remind myself that relearning to read for pleasure is a thing:

Thus, I have made this handy guide composed of four steps and reminders that have helped me on my quest to enjoy literature just for the sake of it once again. It’s been a long time, but over the last year I’ve felt myself enjoying books the way I did as a kid, before reading became a way to distract myself from every ugly facet of adult life. And I want to preserve that process for myself and others. Let us begin!

Step 1: You Aren’t Being Graded on Reading for Pleasure

Say it with me now, “I’m not being graded on this; there is no deadline; I am free to take my time.” Earlier this year I wrote about how I read slower now, most of which I attributed to the lockdown inability to collect books out in the wild during the worse parts of the pandemic. I’ve since realized that a lot of my tendency to read slower now comes from a newfound sense of freedom of not having to pencil in reading for pleasure in between writing essays on books assigned to me by somebody else.

Better yet, I can even trace the inclination to feel like I’m being graded for reading back to public school, when English teachers would give us a mark for bringing a book for silent reading. Ever since childhood I’ve always felt like I need to be reading something, whether for myself or for school. And I’ve realized that I’ve rarely stopped long enough, at least until the pandemic, to take a moment and ask myself, “What do I really feel like reading right now? Not because I feel like I have to for a class, or to feel intellectually superior, or just to have an excuse to not sit alone with the silence of myself, or lack thereof.” If you still feel a yearning to read after removing all those factors, that not only confirms that your passion for literature is genuine, but that reading should not feel like a chore. And once that sense of reading as homework dissipates, joy takes its place.

Step 2: Don’t Feel Like Reading? Don’t Read

This one is still hard for me because the isolation and solitude of the pandemic really proved how much time I would spend reading to avoid having to just sit alone with myself and my feelings. In the years leading up, having internalized the (false) notion that reading and analyzing books is the only skill I have to offer, I would read compulsively to feel productive. I would check out an unrealistic amount of books from the library, often a combination of novels and coffee table books, and force myself to read them in an unrealistic amount of time — just to feel something. (Productive? Worthy? Smarter than everyone else who doesn’t read? Check, check, check.)

With the inability to run off to the library and bury my problems into books for the better part of 18 months, combined with later finishing the core credits required for my English degree, I slowly just stopped feeling the need to always be giving my hands and mind something to do, which used to be reading. I scarcely recall a time in the last five or six years where I didn’t have a book in my hands while watching a movie at night, just for the sake of feeling productive. (And I had the audacity to call this “reading for pleasure”? OK there.) I’ve since learned that these cherished activities of mine, such as reading or watching a movie, deserve my focused, rested attention. There’s no need to always be reading while also watching TV in order to truly fill every silence. I still struggle with this, because this was a way I convinced myself was “resting” and “relaxing” for the longest time. But sometimes we just don’t feel like reading! So don’t force it. It’s never worth it, and it defeats the purpose.

Step 3: Read That Book That Requires a Bit of Commitment

This might sound like a bit of a toxic suggestion depending on how you read, but bear with me. When you get used to having to juggle reading for school and reading for pleasure because you just can’t possibly spend one moment of your free time not reading, longer or denser books might seem daunting. For me, anything above 400 pages still illicits a bit of a groan from me, because I know it might not be something I can necessarily blow through quickly in a couple of nights. Similarly, I’ve never been a huge fan of series longer than a trilogy, because I just get bored and need to read something else. In other words, despite how much I tend to read, I have commitment issues with books, ones that were certainly triggered during my years studying English.

Therefore, after you no longer have to stress about how much school reading you have to do, maybe it’s the right time to pick up that book you’ve always wanted to read but didn’t feel like you could handle the commitment. This is not to say make yourself go pick up an extraordinarily long book if you generally don’t gel with books above a certain page count; respect your boundaries. But if there happens to be a book that’s been on your TBR forever that you are still interested in and have just never made the time, make the time! In my case, over the course of pandemic lockdowns, seeking out books that have been on my list for years that I just never got to really helped in reminding me what it means to read for pleasure. Sometimes the pleasure in the equation requires some commitment.

Step 4: Nobody Cares How Many Books You Read

I know it hurts to admit, but it’s true: nobody cares how many books you’ve read. I know you’ve dedicated years of your life to studying and basking in classic literature, and there’s always that inclination to make it your entire personality, but at the end of the day, someone who doesn’t read or isn’t interested in the same books as you aren’t going to be impressed with how much or how fast you read. It’s hard to hear, trust me, I KNOW! Insert my virtual shoulder to cry on here. Let it out.

This isn’t to say don’t post about books on your social media or review the books you’ve read on your Goodreads or your blog. That is all still worth it if you’re really passionate about reading. But make sure you are doing it for you, and not for virtual validation. Consequently, if you only do the Goodreads Reading Challenge so that you can boast on social media about how you read 100 books this year, it’s really not worth it. If that’s the only reason you’re using Goodreads, I would say don’t even bother tracking the books you read on an app. As social media does best, it will just make you feel insecure and inferior, which is absolutely not what you need. Reading for pleasure requires reading for nobody else but yourself, so leave other people out of it.

If you have any tips on relearning how to read for pleasure, I’d love to know!