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Reading for pleasure: Unrealistic expectations

In this, the first article of the Books Section’s new series ‘Reading for Pleasure’, Antara Singh gives her take on what reading for fun means to her, the difficulty of fulfilling unrealistic Goodreads expectations and re-finding the joy in books.

Since I started secondary school, reading for pleasure kept eluding me. Or maybe I was avoiding it. As a hobby, reading should be enjoyable. But for me, until very recently, reading was becoming less and less of a hobby. After always having to read for a purpose – the purpose of turning reading into something else (usually something useful or productive) – it has become so difficult to really sit down and get lost in a book. This realisation only came to me near the end of last year, when picking up a book became a chore because I could only associate it with work. 

There used to be three main reasons as to why I would read: firstly, for educational purposes, and as a historian, I can’t avoid this. I didn’t feel like I was even keeping up with the bare minimum of reading for my degree, and I was crossing off hardly any books on those ludicrously long reading lists. How could I allow myself the luxury of reading something for fun? 

Then there were the books I would read to fulfill the arbitrarily high Goodreads challenge that I would set for myself every year, often short, easy reads which I wouldn’t even digest properly. I read some books that, looking back on it, I might have really enjoyed, had I not zoomed through them in order to get my reading progress bar to move forwards (and for Goodreads to say ’12 books behind your goal’ rather than 13). 

And thirdly, and perhaps the most stupid category, were the books that I read to seem intellectual, when in reality I had absolutely no idea what Rousseau or Seneca or whoever were going on about. It felt like my time was limited by some abstract, unrealistic demands, and when I wanted to relax, reading would not be my preferred method because I no longer associated it with enjoyment. Of course, occasionally I enjoyed some of these reads, but enjoyment was never the primary purpose; either I read because I was obliged to, or for the sake of seeming ‘well-read’. 

So after having come to this rather depressing conclusion: that I was deriving virtually no pleasure from reading, I set myself a new challenge at the beginning of the holidays: to read books for fun. But given that this was not something I had done before, I wasn’t sure what I enjoyed (did I really enjoy that book or did I just say I did because that’s what I’m supposed to say?). And so, I turned to friends and family, hoping that we had similar enough taste for me to enjoy their recommendations. 

By reading such a diversity of literature, I discovered the genres that I actually enjoyed. In particular, I dived into a lot of foreign literature (foreign by English standards), and I read many works by foreign authors about foreign countries, transporting me through the ages and across the world. 

Two books I particularly enjoyed were A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and Autumn Light by Pico Iyer. A Suitable Boy was terrifying at first because of how long it was (over 1500 pages) – the fear of thick books is very real for me. But somehow, I managed to read it in a week. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I read this book, but it was unputdownable, even when the most mundane details of each character were being described. Autumn Light was much shorter but was also a very slow book: a memoir about facing aging and the death of loved ones, but simultaneously an ode to autumn in Japan. 

Of course, I still turn to terrible Netflix TV shows when I want to relax a bit, but I’m slowly beginning to turn to literature too, because now I read books that I know I will enjoy. And a lucky bonus from all of this is that since I’m actually reading books I enjoy, I’m no longer embarrassingly behind on my Goodreads challenge.

Image Credit: CC0 Public Domain // Max Pixel

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