The last time I had time to “read for pleasure” was 2005, in the short summer months between finishing my MA and beginning the PhD. I was in Sweden and few books were available there in English, so I worked my way through Jane Austen and a few Henry James novels (DM, WMK, WS, TB) with the occasional Woolf, Kafka, Duras (my three favorite authors who I’d brought along) for good measure.
This week I read The Handmaid’s Tale and I’m now reading The Bell Jar. How did I get to be 30 years old without reading these books?
When I was little, I was a precocious reader. I mixed children’s classics like Bridge to Teribithia with real classics like The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck and O’Henry were my favorite authors until middle school. For a few years, The Great Gatsby was my favorite book. This changed when I was about 12. I mean, The Great Gatsby was my favorite book before I was 12.
In 7th grade I still had a lot of time for free reading, but in 8th grade we began to read harder stuff in class and I had less time for myself. 8th grade was the year we attempted to read The Iliad. I say “attempted” because that has got to be the worst idea ever for required reading for 13-14 year olds. It is totally uninteresting and irrelevant even for most adults. The Odyssey, our major 9th grade reading, was better. In those two years we also read West Side Story, Exodus, The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, and various other things I don’t remember. We maybe read a book every 2-3 weeks, so my free reading time was cut dramatically, and would remain so until… 2005.
In high school (I went to a junior high, 7-9, and high school, 10-12) we read classics like Madame Bovary, Candide, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Hamlet, The Sound and the Fury, The Sun Also Rises, A Tale of Two Cities, Heart of Darkness, Crime and Punishment, The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, Grendel, The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, All the King’s Men, Our Town, Pride and Prejudice, Pygmalion, The Importance of Being Earnest, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hard Times, Walden, etc. etc. at the rate of about one every two weeks. When I wasn’t reading these (and I admit, I can recall this particular list of books because these are the ones I actually read– Cliffs Notes and the newly online Barron’s Booknotes were lifesavers for us kids with over-packed schedules), I was reading philosophy for Lincoln-Douglas debate— Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Smith, Kant, Keynes, etc. I read a lot of great stuff, but I also missed out on reading “for fun.” “Fun” reading was the philosophical stuff for debate, because it was an elective/extracurricular. (LD debate is huge and very competitive in AL, as the schools cited in the Wikipedia article– Homewood and Vestavia– are on the local circuit. My friends and I even considered transferring to Vestavia, a neighboring school district, to work with the coach there, who was the best in the country.)
In college, as an English and Comparative Literature double-major, I of course had a lot more assigned reading, especially since I started taking graduate-level classes in the second term of my sophomore year. At this juncture, my “fun” reading was all the stuff the grad students or Charles talked about that I hadn’t read yet. Buffalo has its own “canon” (so does UVA… probably all schools have their own canons) of literature that people will stand agape and aghast if you haven’t read. At Buffalo, if you haven’t read Christian Bök and Louis Zukofsky, you must be an idiot. Whereas at UVA, they’ve never heard of those people (or, if they have, they consider them so minor as to be unworthy of reading). So “fun” reading, or extracurricular reading, was catch-up reading, attempting to catch up with the Poetics grad students while fulfilling all my undergraduate reading assignments. Again, I read a lot of great stuff, but all the stuff that was not of immediate relevance or advised to me with a certain degree of chastisement or condescension was pushed aside. By my senior year I was taking more Comparative Literature classes than English ones, and Comp Lit at Buffalo is largely a philosophy program (and not one in the Locke-Hobbes tradition– the Philosophy department pursues that trajectory). So this was a whole other canon to catch up with: Deleuze, Derrida, Bergson, more Kant, etc.
After all this reading– assigned reading and catch-up reading– I was, quite simply, burned out by the time I finished my MA (I was 24). I read “for fun” over the summer of 2005, but even this reading was “catch up” reading because I was going to enter a Victorian-heavy PhD program having never taken a course on Victorian literature. I enjoyed the readings for the Victorian lit classes I took at UVA, but it’s hard to describe the level of burnout I felt. For a host of reasons, my brain was just mush. And that mushiness was coupled with a sense of being behind again– the canon at UVA was completely different, and none of what I brought to the table (in terms of what I’d read or how I thought, how I analyzed texts) seemed relevant, interesting or valuable to those with the power to judge.
In the summer of 2008 I read a few books for fun. I believe they were James again. James is just fun reading. But when I started teaching and working at the BPO, there was a lot less time to read because “free time” meant “grading.” And then when I entered the MLS program there was more reading for class, homework, and group projects, so again, no time for free reading. (I should mention that along with these programs, there’s always other stuff going on– poetry readings, poetry editing, various health issues that come and go, side jobs, reading the news instead of novels, trying to keep up with a few of the dozens of interesting poetry books that emerge every year– which I don’t usually consider “fun reading” but rather a kind of job that doesn’t pay.)
So now, as this program (the MLS) winds down and I look forward to taking July off to pack up my apartment to move, there is a window of free time for reading. I prefer novels, and The Golden Bowl is probably next on the list.