The Secret Reading Life of a Literature Grad Student

I was recently at a wedding where I found myself reacquainting with classmates I hadn’t seen in over a decade. It felt a lot like a high school reunion – tables filled with high-pitched echoes of “Where have you been!” and “Just like old times…” and “Are we still friends on Facebook?” Going through the repertoire of popular “it’s been a while” questions, most people wanted to know what everyone was doing with their lives. When it was my turn for this round of Q&A, I told everyone that I was still a student (and sometimes a teaching assistant) at a university literature department, and the choral response I received made me feel a little uncomfortable: “awww, that’s so you!” They were of course referring to a “you” of ten years ago, not knowing much about the “you” of now. As it turns out I don’t  have many of them on my Facebook. But the exchange got me thinking about my literary persona and how my relationship with books has changed over the years.

In high school I found great solace in the library amongst fictional friends whose thoughts and workings were more accessible to me than the unreadable characters of the real world. I wasn’t restrictive with my books, reading widely across periods, regions, and genres, from Austen and Adichie to Zola and Xaba. I thrived in English classes under the tutelage of my English teacher who, like most English teachers, was the best teacher in the world.  The worlds of the high school library and classroom were indistinct and my love of books made it easier for me to develop a good command over language, to grow an appreciation for style, and of course to always have enough content available for book reports. I suppose this is how I developed my bookish reputation amongst peers and why it might seem that my career was an obvious happily ever after to this high school story. 

But growing into my bookish career I’ve noticed a split in my reading habits that disrupts this fairytale logic. I often find myself torn between two diverging book categories – the books I love to read and the books I need to think.

The books I love to read are ones I look for when I crave escape, when I want to be sensorily absorbed into a narrative and obedient to the spell of a writer. If I’m honest, these books are mostly melted mozzarella, feel-good romances. As an occasional treat I pick up a novel from favourite authors like Zadie Smith or Helen Oyeyemi whose poetic styles I love for their power and aesthetic. In general, this kind of reading is rare and often takes second place to the many books I read to think. 

The books I need to think are constantly changing based on what I am researching or teaching. These are poems, plays, novels and sometimes documents from the archives I interrogate to determine how writers of a time used to think, how characters reflect their contexts, and how texts and writing traditions inform our understanding of the way the world worked then and is now. To analyse a book I have to take it apart like a machine, deconstructing its mechanisms, and exposing all its bare parts.  Then, to make sense of these parts and the work they do together I have to read an array of ‘literature’ (the grown-up cousin of books) about grand social concepts like race, gender, religion, economics, and philosophy. 

These small works of ‘literature’ with their vast fields of content sometimes give me the sense that I am falling down an infinite tunnel of information. This unsettling way of ‘getting lost’ in reading is not cute or romantic. By the time you catch up with all the books you’ve needed to get through, there are at least a few dozen more added to your reading list. It also doesn’t help that familiar adult themes like “job”, “income”, “contract”, “funding”, and “deadline” are also attached to this reading world, doing their fair share to dampen the pursuit of a pleasurable read.

My thinking books are altogether time- and mind-consuming, leaving very little space for any other kind of reading to happen. This means I don’t get to read for pleasure as often or as widely as I used to. But there are moments in my work when all the words fall into the right place, when I hit an intellectual and imaginative euphoria where my book worlds collide. The triumph of solving the literature I’m studying offers me a brief and beautiful glimpse into how the magic of a book works. I don’t get to experience it as a reader but I get to see it in action, which brings its own kind of literary joy.

So I suppose in some ways people are right in thinking that my career genesis has been organic, since it seems that as long as I’m in some relationship with books, be it a tumultuous and passionate love affair or a comfortable buttered toast kind of companionship, I’m definitely so myself.

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