From a very young age, I have been a strong reader. My kind mother, a schoolteacher, instilled this virtue in my mind early and encouraged it whenever possible. Our family took routine trips to the public library, a place filled with echoes and strange scents, to allow my brother and I to disappear into the stacks and emerge later with a handful of books.
Throughout elementary school, I set the pace in my classes for reading, despite the reliance on old SRA reading exercises to gauge our progress. Later, I’d bring home the assigned anthology and read through it, cover to cover, just to enjoy and familiarize myself with the kinds of words and plots we’d explore.
Even through difficult periods, reading always provided an escape from the blossoming confusion surrounding me in the poorly kept garden of growing up. In 4th grade, after countless playground fights, unwelcome classroom antics, and more after-school detention than any other kid in my class (sorry, mom), the school counselor thought it best to have me tested for any undetected learning disabilities. I was already reading at a senior level and had absolutely nothing wrong with me. It turned out that I was just stressed. Imagine that!
This same love of reading persisted, as I soon dug into the dusty shelves of my mother’s book collection to find authors as varied as Shakespeare and Maya Angelou. I kept periodically returning to the library across town on my bike, without telling anyone where I was headed, just to wander the stacks and find something new and different to read.
As time progressed, reading took on different forms and eventually, writing became part of the satisfaction. After a failed first attempt at collegiate glory, I reentered college as an English major, hoping to start with something familiar and branch out from there. Depending on one’s assessment of a love of literature as a valid academic course, this was either a fortunate occurrence or a horribly mislaid plan.
Somewhere along the way, something changed. I was reading increasingly complex works from the long span of literature written in some form of English, so I should have been thrilled to have given myself over to such a pleasurable activity. Yet, pairing these works with balanced criticism while subsequently trying to add my own contribution to the conversation transformed the process. What was once something into which I escaped became something from which I needed to escape from.
Entering graduate school exacerbated this paradoxical attitude. Now, novels and poems weren’t just expressions to be explored, understood, and merged into my conscious mind. They became sites of struggle and criticism. 500 to 1000 pages passed before my eyes in a given week, dimming what was once a bright light underneath a veil of analysis and dissection.
Now that I’ve changed career trajectories, the once vivid dreams of academic glory as a scholar of literature fade into the past like a hazy horizon in the rear-view mirror of a car moving unstoppably forward. For a few years after finishing my degree, I found enjoying novels and poems to be difficult.
So, my eyes drifted aimlessly across an interminable stream of internet pages, absorbing little but the light that exposed the growing dullness of my mind. It persisted this way, with my reading for pleasure becoming subordinate to reading to survive and reading to simply keep my mind aware. It was a struggle against loss and the oblivion of something I had nurtured and sustained for so long. I could scarcely even escape into films without following a viewing with analysis, secondary criticism, and thematic rumination.
Recently though, the dullness has dissipated. I’ve reopened my mind to an earlier chapter to find where I had lost my place. It wasn’t bookmarked, as that placeholder always travels forward with me, marking achievement by sheer advancement through pages. It was hidden somewhere back in the text: A juncture at which pleasure parted one way and persistence took my hand down another path.
I’ve begun reading just about anything I can with substance, even balancing graduate work reading in a new degree program with non-fiction, memoirs, poems, philosophical texts, etc. But now, over the coming winter break from my academically orbited schedule, a wondrous new friend, a treasured old friend, and my own curiosity have placed on my nightstand four novels to read. These aren’t novels to read for a project or for a paper. These are simply escapes into a prism of imagination, refracting reading for pleasure into a spectrum of new possibilities.
And now, as I write this, I sense a connection between this rebirth and a larger period of reinvention in which I find myself. For the unlucky masses, something dear to us that had once been the source of our healthiest, most meaningful satisfaction can slowly become an unmanageable chore. Overthinking, overanalyzing, and being hypercritical triumph over what what was good and valuable. Our minds, once polished and bright, and our hearts, once hopeful and energetic, become dull. It is a struggle against the loss of self and the oblivion of something we had nurtured and sustained for so long.
We ask ourselves if we still have the fire in our belly to change. To reinvent ourselves. To be reborn or to cast aside our stagnated bookmarks and find the juncture at which persistence lured us away from walking the pleasurable path, the path that initially led us towards that which we sought but of which we have now lost sight.
I believe I’m still capable of it. I have a new stack of novels to read that are calling out to me to awaken, to unfetter my mind, to return once again to that juncture and to confidently go in a new direction with a renewed imagination and a heart ready to swell with new possibility.