Getting back to reading for pleasure
…or an ode to now dead literary references?
Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read Harry Potter, Catch-22, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Count of Monte Cristo – there are a few references here that you may want to skip.
If I were a troubled friend seeking advice, I might ask you to be the Jeeves to my Wooster, or if grad school has driven you into an existential crisis, I might tell you the answer has always been 42. While you might have heard of and used the term Catch-22, do you fondly reread the chapter on Major Major Major in Heller’s masterpiece? And if I remark in astonishment “By Seldon,” would you identify me as a sci-fi lover? I could ramble on and on about obscure book references, but I am sure the blog editor will eventually cut me off. So, my dear reader, let me get to the point: if it’s been a few years since your last pleasure read, this blog post is an attempt to convince you that reading as a hobby, may be just the thing that gets you through grad school. Also, in the spirit of full disclosure, this blog post was penned out of acute selfishness, driven by a desperate need to have somebody (anybody?) understand the above and many other trapped-in-paper references that I am in the habit of conversing in.
Books – fiction, non-fiction, biographies, or children’s – have been my faithful companions for most of my life. My parents got me into the habit of bedtime reading as a child, and since the age of 7, I have been reading stories to fall asleep. Like me, you may have used a flashlight to read past bedtime, or pre-ordered your copy of Deathly Hallows because waiting for even one extra day to destroy horcruxes was never an option. But as a child, I never could imagine that books would be my source of solace in the darkest and most stressful periods of life. Today, books are not just entertainment, but a temporary escape from deadlines and research worries, a way for me to control my anxiety, and eventually nod off to sleep, having funny dreams about my favourite characters. No calendar or email notification could ever mar the delightful pages of a book.
Unfortunately, among my book-loving friends and peers, I find that reading for pleasure often takes a backseat, getting neglected amidst the long hours and deadline pressures that form a natural part of student life. And as I grow older, very few friends, if any, ask me what books I have been reading, or suggest a book or an author. Conversations on books are rare, and often the topics that dominate discussions seem to be the all engulfing news and political headlines of the day, or maybe the latest trending TV shows. Mark you, I would happily chat away on both of these topics, but I miss those conversations about books, authors, and plot points that were so much a part of my experience growing up. And most of all, like the tune and lyrics to the Beatles’ Twist and Shout album, I find that a lot of information about books, the characters, references, and remarks in them, are just tucked away in my brain, maybe never to be used again. And so dear reader, dictated by my own selfish interests of wanting to discuss books, I am on a mission to help grad students get back to reading beyond the demands of school and research.
Labouring under the delusion that you haven’t already navigated to a different webpage, you may now be wondering: (i) how do I fit reading into my already crazy schedule, (ii) it’s been so long since I read a non-technical book, I can barely focus and I am not even sure where to begin, (iii) why am I reading this ramble and what am I eating for dinner today? For (i) and (ii), below are some time-tested strategies to help you get back to reading for pleasure. For (iii), assuming you are in Cambridge, I suggest a sandwich and a milkshake from Veggie Galaxy.
1. If you haven’t read a (non-technical) book in a while, start with an easy read, or even better, a re-read
If you haven’t read a 600-pager in a while, you may have trouble focusing for more than a few minutes. One strategy that has always worked for me is rereading a book that I loved as a child, or a favourite chapter from a previous read. Reading a familiar chapter can transport you in time to a happier place and rekindle that sense of childish wonder. When focus eludes me, I always default to the last few chapters of The Count of Monte Cristo, and the bitter-sweet ending between Edmond and Mercedes, or “The Prince’s Tale” from Deathly Hallows.
2. To stave off boredom, repeated ideas, or overused character tropes – read across genres.
Fantasy and sci-fi are not the only options. There’s science, observational comedy, mythology, economics, etc. etc. etc. It helps to never read two books of the same genre in succession. Books from different genres can expose you to different ideas, and approaches. I recently followed a translation of Homer’s Odyssey with a children’s book (The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart) and thoroughly enjoyed the light, famous-five-esque read.
3. Cook, drive, do laundry, and more with audiobooks
I understand that the smell and feel of paper and books form a significant part of the reading experience, but I would like to take a moment to advocate for audiobooks. When I am hard pressed for spare time, I rely on audiobooks because I can listen to them while walking to the lab, doing the dishes, or folding my laundry. A typical audiobook is about 8-11 hours. That’s the average time one might be engaged in doing mundane chores, over the course of a week. Some audiobook narrators have a particular gift for making words come alive. My favourite audiobook clip involves Martin Freeman reading a conversation between Zem the mattress, and Marvin, the depressed robot on the planet of Sqornshellous Zeta in the third book of the five part The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. (Yes I know every part of that sentence was ridiculous –well, that’s Douglas Adams for you!)
4. If you struggle getting to sleep, read to bed (or listen to an audiobook with a sleep timer)
Struggling to sleep is a horrible feeling. One of the first suggestions that I got to rectify my sleeplessness was to build a bedtime routine. Where apps failed me, a cup of tea and a book worked like a charm. More recently, I have switched to audiobooks with a sleep timer. In fact, all through the pandemic, I have been falling asleep to David Mitchell (the comedian) narrating his fantastic books, or Stephen Fry narrating Greek mythology. My personal favourite is the story of Narcissus and Echo, in Mythos.
5. Use your E-book reader to highlight words that strike a chord
There are some words, sentences and literary characters that resonate with me. I like highlighting them on my kindle, which also auto compiles my highlights across all books. Every few months, I get to go back and take a look at this compilation, a journal of my readings and the words that stuck with me. Here is a picture of my kindle, with one of my favourite lines from Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger:
Caption: A picture of my favourite highlight from Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
6. Looking for inspiration? Head to the library or join a reading group
MIT Libraries can always find you any book that you may wish to read. Even if it’s fiction, or not available at MIT, the libraries will be able to get you the book through their interlibrary borrowing program. You could also become a member (for free!) at the Boston Public Library for books, e-books, audiobooks etc. And finally, there are a number of grad reading groups/ book clubs at MIT, where you can get reimbursed for your books, and find a dedicated group to discuss a book with, every few weeks.
If you are still here, apologies for the long ramble that I have inflicted on you, but happy reading! If you ever meet me or pass me by, stop me and tell me all about that last book that made you smile.
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