Post-graduate reading pains

Explaining the English major’s reading dilemma.

Jenna Beyer

At age 25 with an English degree, I find myself in an apartment with three overflowing bookshelves and summer afternoons seemingly full of time, yet barely enough momentum to read anything longer than a text message. As pages turn yellow, I watch episode after episode of Law & Order like a zombie, looking for a creative satisfaction or inspiration I could certainly fulfill if I just sat down and read anything in its entirety. What’s wrong with me?

An avid reader as a child, I placed high in all of my school’s pizza-sponsored reading competitions. My Goosebumps books rested bumpily next to my mellow Nancy Drew stacks, both collections growing exponentially after I plowed through them unself-consciously. Now, I read in two- or three-page sessions that strike randomly, without warning or thought. “In-the-moment pleasure,” I let myself think, knowing that, deep down, I’m cheating myself. It burns like so many pages of lies would, if only put to some use.

Children are known to experience a summer slide if they don’t maintain reading habits when school is out. But as adults, we have the ability to choose what to read, when and where. We know reading makes us smarter, better people, and we are not impeded by the obstacles children face when a desire to read occurs. It makes sense that the push for childhood reading is so much stronger than the adult one — there is simply no excuse not to read. As a writer, I have a unique need to read. In addition to a source of enjoyment and therapy, it’s my research.

In recent conversation with a literature professor, I brought up my worrisome inability to actually finish a book, meandering as I do between a few favorites in which I’m always lost and a steady stream of new interests or acquisitions that take over temporarily.

“Maybe that’s just how you read,” he said, adding that most people read that way to some degree. But should we? The pressure school puts on writing overwhelms easily; all possible interpretations and hidden meanings swim to the surface at the same time, coupled with a feeling that I should be grasping some precise concept that I will later be tested on, in class or, more likely, conversation.

Three months of summer fly by no matter what, but another long year spent cooped up often drives us to a more potent escape (and less of a commitment) than a book offers. Soon it’ll be back into the library basement to drink low-quality coffee and stack priorities against each other as your bloodshot eyes sweep page after page of that awkward course packet. How much can you forget in three months? Sounds like a fun drinking game!

Recent University of Minnesota English graduate Joy Lutefist shares my pain. “I read now, sure,” she says, “but not as honestly, not with a thought to how the words speak to me — but rather how it represents the job it can get me and how best to adjust my interpretations to the mainstream.”

Has school ruined us forever? Not exactly, but take it from Joy and me — those passions need to be nurtured while they’re being studied and expanded.”

Looking at our campus, it’s evident that reading isn’t a primary activity. In my three years at the University, I know of only a handful of study spaces suitable for reading (with open tables, good lighting and a serious lack of noise). When and where do we do this reading? Do we all spend hours per day reading in private? Get into small groups in class and it becomes painfully obvious that our reading habits are spotty at best, tailored to an educational system that encourages the bare minimum.

But now I’m out of that system, and I’m asking myself how a lifelong reading slide can be countered. I don’t have any magic solutions, but I’m going to start by getting off of the computer and starting to read something, anything — and daring myself to finish it sometime soon.

Jenna Beyer welcomes comments at [email protected]