I went down (what I think of as) the typical path of an “avid” reader starting a university degree in English/American literature.
I read a lot before starting the degree, three or four times the amount of books I am probably going to read this year (=hopefully 50). Once I started studying English (and a bunch of other things), I still read a lot, but 80% of the books were comfort reads: books I have read before, books without complicated narrative structure, fast-paced books, and ultimately books which allowed me to shut out the reality for a couple of hours.
A few semesters into the degree, throw in some massive anxiety show-downs about the future career (now that I had run away from the “secure” law degree), linguistic melt-down due to my omnivorous appetite for learning languages, and a major identity crisis on cultural/linguistic basis, and you have a former reader who doesn’t read much.
In the past 15 months, I’ve read 35 books that were not assigned reading.
In the past three years, I’ve read 23 full-length novels and plays, dozens of short stories, a handful of poems, and countless academic articles for classes (which really isn’t a lot, for three literature degrees combined). Among them, there were famous books, best-selling books, thought-books and problematic ones, but none of them allowed me to sink into their world and just absorb, which was how I used to read.
I suppose my reasons for reading have changed after three years of analytic approach to narratives. I used to read for the immersive experience that let me become somebody else, for the surge of emotions hitherto unknown to me, for the fictitiousness of it all. I used to decide on my favorite books mostly based on feelings: the ones evoking the strongest emotions in me were my favorites. In hindsight, what a romantic approach to reading it was!
Strangely, however, the books from past few years that are lingering the most on my mind are books I had a lukewarm attitude toward while reading, books that were confusing and not exciting, books whose fictitious reality faded away the moment I put them down. Among them I count Come to Me by Amy Bloom, Our Town by Thornton Wilder, Dance of the Happy Shade by Alice Munro, The Love Object by Edna O’Brien, I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones.
Why do we read?
I think it’s an important question a reader should ask themself more often. I’ve been thinking lately that I want to read and re-read good books. Now, “good” is a totally anti-academic description that has no place in a term paper, but my personal requirements for “good” books are that they are written beautifully or extraordinarily (in literal sense), that they do not have a simple message of “this is good, that is bad”, that they teach me new things, and that they linger.
After three years of reading while looking out for narrative techniques, metaphors, character inconsistencies and so on, I have become unable to “simply read”. My reading pace has slowed down considerably and I have stopped accepting the finished book as the god/dess beyond reproach.
I used to resist every step of this change in my reading behavior, and – ironically enough – almost at the end of my university career, I have finally arrived at a place where I can live with this new version of reader and can even think of some perks this might bring into my life.
To be honest, though, this is rather an inevitable legacy of a literature degree and not the most profound discovery I have made in the last three years.
I still believe that I have run away from law degree three years ago. But at the same time, studying Humanities has allowed me the time, room and tools to deal with my anxiety, to get to know my bad habits better, to be wary of everything, to realize how intolerant, stubborn and hypocritical I am, and, most preciously, to recover my Korean roots and to stop running away from the task of digging up past memories and acquiring new knowledge about my and my family’s country.
Since I am such a scaredy cat, I didn’t make full use of everything my university has to offer, but in the past few semesters I was fortunate enough to (re)discover my interest in acting and theater, in translation, in creative writing, in editing texts, in anime, in Japanese, Dutch and Russian.
One more week of the summer semester to push through! (Followed by an intense semester break in which I have to write numerous term papers, again.) I suppose I’ll go read some good books now.