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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

How to Read: the Long Vac

A guide to reading how, and when, you like

‘Once the vac starts…’: a common phrase heard amongst many Oxford students. Whatever their subject, year or lifestyle, Oxford terms can, on occasions, feel like a constant battle for time against an overwhelming current of work, responsibilities and commitments. Essay deadlines, problem sheets, societies, sport: all of these combine to eat into the precious and inevitably limited free time which the typical Oxford student enjoys during term, and it is thus perhaps not entirely surprising that pleasure reading often falls by the wayside between first and eighth week.

As an activity intrinsically associated with leisure and arguably requiring some degree of time commitment to be enjoyable, carving out hours to read with no other aim than enjoying that book can seem nigh on impossible. Indeed, pleasure reading is often (relatively) very time consuming; opposed to the instant gratification offered by a standalone one-hour episode of Black Mirror on Netflix, many novels require several hours at least to fully appreciate and enjoy. Moreover, this enjoyment is not guaranteed; there is always the risk that the book will not be enjoyable, making the idea of spending previous hours on reading it even less appealing. In a world free of time pressures, this mystery is exciting – could this novel be entirely different from what I expect? Will it be a hidden gem, and totally contradict my expectations? But in reality, it simply makes it far easier to veer towards the reliable pleasure offered by other sources.

These ideas tie into wider contradiction between leisure reading and what could be called an ‘efficiency’ mindset. I (and many of my friends) find myself constantly trying to streamline my time commitments and make the most of the hours in the day; we strive to work and use our time efficiently, to constantly maximise the outcome of a time investment. Yet again, it can feel like reading for pleasure goes against this in many ways; beyond requiring a large time investment for only possible pleasure as a result, it also provides very little in the way of other, measurable returns. Spending some free time playing football (for example) not only provides pleasure, but can also be very social and help someone keep fit; by contrast, reading is generally a solo activity, best enjoyed sitting comfortably alone in one’s room.

And yet, the value of pleasure reading cannot be underestimated. After all, there is something which still draws people back to novels again and again, something which means that many of even the busiest Oxford students still have a half-finished novel sitting on their bedside table. The immersive escapism reading offers is in many ways unparalleled, it is not without reason that reading is not simply abandoned, but postponed to the holidays, for the ‘one day’ when we will hopefully have more time and be able to fully savour that new book.

Yet it is easy to always think about the ‘one day’ and forget about the days that are passing in the moment. For scientists spending hundreds of hours in the lab and on problem sheets, and humanities students reading literally thousands if not millions of words through the course of a normal term of academic work, reading for leisure can seem like an impossibly inefficient use of time in the mania of term, and it is fair to say that for many, there will be periods (whether a week, a month, or even a whole term) when other activities and work will force reading into the background. But it would be a great shame for the pleasures and value of regular reading to be neglected. Besides the classic value of literature in allowing us to understand perspectives and experiences beyond our own, reading in some ways reminds us of the bigger picture. Time spent reading is a longer term investment in ourselves; while it may not immediately benefit us in terms of our work, social life or CV, spending time on an activity with the sole aim of personal enjoyment (and possibly eventual appreciation) also reminds us that life is about more than the here and now.

So while I will be spending this vac on catching up with at least some of the books I intended to read in Trinity, but never quite seemed to get round to, I hope to spend next term enjoying not only the busyness of life in Oxford, but also savouring moments to read for and by myself.

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