By Bea Carpenter
Every year I make some sort of New Year’s Resolution to read more, or read ‘x’ number of books with the best of intentions. As I sat down to write myself goals for 2021, perhaps in an attempt to bring a sense of normality to the potentially shapeless year, I wrote determinedly on the page “Read at least 20 books”. To some this is nothing, to others a bit of a feat, but this year for me, it was not a challenge or empty statement but a promise to myself to commit to create time in my life to read.
Although it sometimes feels like it never happened, I graduated from Cambridge in 2020. As an ex-Natsci student my reading lists consisted mainly of textbooks, articles and the occasional quirky popular science book to spice it up. All of which were important for my understanding of the content, but not written to entertain, rather to (quite dryly) inform.
Although my degree didn’t prescribe me to sit in the library and devour piles of books like many humanities students, I still found that trying to absorb this steady stream of incoming text both on-screen and off really took the fun out of reading. When I found myself alone with a couple of hours to spare, it was impossible not to pick up my laptop and switch off, watching Netflix that I could passively take in. Reading became a chore for my tired eyes and I had to force myself to sit with no other distractions and read. When I did so, it often felt like a sort of tick-box exercise: to learn this fact, or consider a certain point of view, or simply to keep in the loop. The productivity guilt of the Cambridge term was so deeply ingrained in me that I always tried to justify to myself the value of reading something: what would I get out of it? Or it made me think, ‘I have to read this or that’.
When 2020 forced everyone inside, many of us, with perhaps too much time to fill or out of desperation to escape reality, turned to books. I decided to actively heal my relationship with reading.
I was always the child that liked to read; as the daughter of an English teacher, books are part of our identity as a family. When I came home from Cambridge, I noticed my dad had joined in on a trend of signing off his emails with a little note saying, “I’m currently reading …”. He told me all his colleagues were doing the same to inspire each other and the pupils they taught. This jolted me into action as I realized I never wanted to be that person with the same title there for months on end or worse still, nothing.
So, I’ve tried to approach the challenge of ‘reading more’ as if it were a new romantic relationship. I’m making dates with Phillip Pullman and Zadie Smith, I’m prioritising books and penciling in time with them into my diary, logging the experience and making sure to discuss my feelings about the titles mainly with my (poor) lockdown bubble, my parents. I’d forgotten the joy I get from reading for pleasure.
Reframing reading in this way has turned it from a chore into an activity. Over the last nine months or so, I’ve allowed myself the time and space to read for myself and to do it more mindfully, sort of ‘intuitively’.
So far, it’s going well. There have of course been times when my enthusiasm has waned and my concentration has fallen off the page, captured instead by Instagram. However, now that reading is no longer a challenge or ‘task’, I’ve just allowed these fluctuations to happen, coming back to the book or a different one at another time.
A friend said to me recently, as we lamented over the general greyness of the world at the moment, ‘you’re so lucky you like to read’. I felt a mixture of pride in being able to agree with her now that my relationship with reading had been mended and a wish that she felt the same and for reading to not still be seen as an academic pursuit or restricted to certain groups of society.
As cheesy as it sounds, now that I can enjoy the creativity and genius of others through the medium of reading I feel more in-tune with my own sense of self and purpose.
To me, reading now represents community, comfort and exploration. It helps me empathize, sympathize and discover new parts of myself and the world around me, and I am ready to embrace it all.
* If you feel inspired to update your shelves, please consider purchasing your next read from Hive (a more sustainable and ethical Amazon alternative), a secondhand bookshop click & collect service near you, from Depop or borrow/swap books with your friends. *
Illustration by the author