Lessons from an unsuccessful reading diet

From the time I first learned to read, I always had my nose in a book. If I wasn’t reading, I was indulging in the magic of make-believe or pouring out my imaginative day-dreaming on paper. Like other book-lovers, I fortunately discovered this passion at a young age. Libraries swirled with the excitement of a toy store and books provided the faithful companionship of a pet. I found an escape in other worlds, friends in new characters, and the thrill of adventure at the tip of my fingertips.

Picture credit to Kate Ter Haar on Flickr

In the past few years, however, that part of me vanished. The usual culprits were to blame: getting too busy with other responsibilities, being too tired with those responsibilities, finding “easier” ways to cope with those responsibilities, like the TV remote.

The most disappointing thing though, was that I had given up.

In the process of managing high school and preparing for college, a career, the real world, I began avoiding the books I would normally love to read. I deserted works of fiction and cast aside those popular young adult books being turned into films. I had subconsciously decided that I had to move on, that I had to resort to nonfiction and to classic literature, and that I needed to grow up.

I spent many painful days deciphering The Scarlet Letter, a book from the 1850s, and then feeling somehow inadequate and unintelligent for not enjoying it (I mean, it’s a Classic, how could I not?). Suddenly, reading was starting to become unpleasant. It was taking me months to finish a book. I had the occasional good moment every now and then, when I read The Help for instance, or Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. But for the most part, I was very miserable. I reached the point where I was *gasp* doing only the required reading for school. I was imprisoned by this miscalculated rule I had created for myself.

This might sound like I’m overdramatizing a trivial situation, but I realize now that this was more than just not liking the books I was reading. Because of my mistaken notion of “what I should be doing,” I stopped reading altogether. My new attitude prevented me from drifting past shelves at a library and picking a book at random. In a way, I stopped seeking adventure and I stopped having fun. I turned this pure, perfect zeal into a boring chore. In this dangerous quest of wanting to seem mature and cultured, (never mind the fact that I was already quite mature and cultured), I was basically telling myself that the books I liked reading weren’t good enough—that I wasn’t good enough.

Fortunately, my approach recently changed. I did some major reflecting, and decided I needed more free time for myself, and that I needed to go back to the kind of reader I was as a little kid. Most importantly, I needed to remind myself that whatever I was reading — for that matter, whatever I was reading, or wearing, or doing — I was okay, as long as I was true to myself. So I went back to devouring entire books in days. I picked up Nicholas Sparks and John Green. I pored over Andre Agassi’s Open and Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.  I read Sidney Sheldon and more Jhumpa Lahiri.

The variety in my reading gave me perspective, and it helped me rediscover my love for books. I have learned not to feel guilty for reading the occasional easy-read every now and then and not to be too hard on myself when reading a Classic, with the intimidating capital C. I’ve also realized that I was wrong in underestimating the power of fiction and casting it aside in the name of growing up. I stumbled upon this Flannery O’Connor quote which spoke to me:

“Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”

Fiction isn’t just the make-believe we played as kids. It’s not just a fantasy land where we escape from our problems. It can be—but it’s more than that. The universal truths buried beneath fictitious words and characters can help us make sense of the world, and of ourselves.

There was a scene in the film Liberal Arts, where I especially liked the main character Zibby. She’s discussing a book with her friend Jesse, who says: “This – is the worst book – ever – written – in English.”

Zibby: “So there are worse books written in other languages?”

Jesse: “Probably not. Unless this book is translated into other languages.”

Picture credit to Rev9

The book in question is Twilight—vampire-filled, romantically sappy Twilight. Many people who have read it hate it, and many people who haven’t read it like hating on it. But I appreciate that Zibby doesn’t let the popular criticism dissuade her opinion: “I liked it. It was fun and stupid. And it passed the time. And it’s not Tolstoy, but it’s also not television. And it made me happy.”

Keep reading friends, and read what makes you happy.

And to all books everywhere: I’m sorry. I’m sorry I doubted you. I’m sorry I abandoned you. I always have and always will love you.

Featured Image credit to timetrax23 on Flickr 

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