I’ll throw my hands up and admit it – since leaving school almost two years ago, I’ve read less than five books for pleasure. And yet, perplexingly, reading takes up a sizable chunk of my time every single day at university. Every week I churn through two or three set texts, skim through seven or eight books of literary criticism, digest multitudes of academic articles for my various seminars, as well as reading hundreds of news articles and opinion pieces to keep myself in the loop. It should come as no surprise, then, that the last thing I feel like doing in my few hours of free time is picking up the latest bestseller in Waterstones.
For me, each term at university is a blur of abstracts, conclusions and reading lists, with thousands of words swimming past my eyes on a daily basis. Granted, I love my degree, and I enjoy (most of) the reading I do for it, but I cannot help but feel that my desire to read purely for enjoyment and personal fulfilment no longer burns as strongly as it used to. Little by little, chapter by chapter, my brain has started to associate reading with academia, with deadlines, with assignments and exams. Each word I read is a step closer toward finishing an essay, each book I tick off my reading list a step closer to a glowing report at the end of term. In my mind, the amount I read directly correlates with my academic performance and not with my personal development, meaning that reading has slowly become a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
I often wonder what 13-year-old me would think if she could see me now. She spent hours and hours with her head in a book, devouring entire series in a matter of days and becoming so engrossed in each new fictional world she entered that she would often forget to eat – or even sleep for that matter. Now, even during vacations, I try to pick up a book and find myself unable to read a page without getting distracted. I attribute this in part to the fact that social media has destroyed my attention span, but I think the root of the problem lies in how little I see reading as something that can simply be for fun.
My free time is spent playing the piano, watching YouTube, going out for coffee with friends – anything that doesn’t involve looking at words on a page. After two months at university, that part of my brain is so worn out that the thought of reading any book makes me feel as tired as I feel at the end of 8th week, not to mention the fact that I have to spend most of my vac reading novels in foreign languages to prepare for the upcoming term. With so many other ways to fill my time that require only a fraction of this brainpower and concentration, even getting through a chapter of a novel feels like a monumental achievement.
Suddenly, however, the outbreak of a global pandemic means that many of my usual outlets for entertainment have become unavailable: with cinemas, cafes and pubs being forced to close their doors and thousands of students like myself being confronted with the prospect of an indefinitely extended vacation, now feels like a perfect time to reassess my approach to reading. I find myself staring at a potentially unending expanse of free time for the first time in years – suddenly the pressures of vac reading are off the table (at least for now) and all of my plans are cancelled. I hope that this will give me the mental space to rediscover the pleasure of getting lost in a book. I’ve redownloaded Goodreads, made a questionably large order of books on Amazon, stocked up on snacks and tea, and I’m suddenly feeling as excited as 13-year-old me was on the day that the final Hunger Games book was released.
The pressures of university life and an ever-increasing offer of online entertainment (I’m looking at you, The Sims) are enough to make even the keenest bookworm fall out of love with reading. I hope that in the coming days and months, these unprecedented circumstances may lead to a dwindling flame being reignited. After all, as the world we are living in becomes increasingly similar to the worlds we read about in dystopian novels, there may be some escape to be found in reliving the Roaring Twenties, immortalised in the pages of Fitzgerald, or in immersing yourself in the romantic intrigues of the landed gentry in Austen’s works. Yes, it’s going to require locking my phone away and applying some serious discipline at first, but I cannot wait to begin tearing through novels with the same enthusiasm I tear through Netflix series.
I’m beginning with a novel I’ve been meaning to read since I was sixteen, Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I hope that amidst the walls of Helen Huntingdon’s Elizabethan mansion I will rekindle the love affair with reading that I left behind when I came to Oxford.