By Andrea Johnson
I’ve stopped pleasuring myself in public. It shocks too many people. “What are you doing?” they ask, eyes wide. “How can you—how do you possibly have the time to read…for pleasure?”
The short answer is this: I make the time, just like I make time to eat and sleep. I’m not exaggerating when I equate reading for fun with eating and sleeping—the latter two are as necessary for my physical health as the former is for my mental health.
Lawrence is an intense place; the classes move quickly, and the workload is heavy. We all need breaks periodically, times when we can relax, breathe and be calm. I take mine by reading mystery novels, though you could do the same by taking a yoga class, going on a walk, having a movie night or grabbing a meal with a friend. That said, I think reading for fun is in particular need of protection for several reasons.
First, reading makes us better people. In 2013, researchers at the New School in New York City found evidence that reading literary fiction makes people more empathetic.
They theorize that when we read about the complicated inner lives of characters that are not like us, we recognize the complexity of the real people around us. While informative and even interesting, technical readings on the way our vocal cavities produce vowel sounds, for example, do not instill in us a compassion for our fellow humans.
Second, I worry for people who find themselves in the habit of reading only when it is assigned. I fear they will grow to consider reading a chore and therefore be less inclined to engage in any reading, for pleasure or otherwise, when there are no longer professors requiring it.
This would be bad for reasons already outlined—that reading for fun is healthy and makes us more compassionate—and also for the fundamental reason that reading gives us access to such a wealth of, well, everything. Information and people and places.
Google, whose Google Books project aims to digitize every published book in existence, estimates that there are 129,864,880 books in the world. That’s so much potential empathy!
In addition, long-form journalism is becoming ever more popular as such bastions of the news world as The New York Times, Politico and The Atlantic realize that we technology-addled millennials can and do enjoy more than click-bait cat videos.
A personal favorite of the genre is “The Reckoning” by Peter Solomon, which ran in The New Yorker in March of this year and profiles Peter Lanza, the father of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, as he “reckons” with what his son did. It is a masterfully-told tale that weaves in and out of the narrative of Peter Lanza’s life while examining some of the larger-scale implications of the shooting, like the treatment of mental illness and the strictness of gun control laws.
Online long-form journalism, with its ability to really dig into a topic and bring it to life through the inclusion of graphics, videos and interactive components, is the future. It’s not only a pleasurable reading experience but an informative one as well; readings need not be obscure, assigned or technical to be beneficial. Let’s not train ourselves now to only read when it’s strictly necessary, for we will be cutting ourselves off from a world of engaging, meaningful works.
I hope you can find time to read for fun. President Obama can—he reads for half an hour before bed every night—so I’m confident that you can. Prioritize it, put it in the calendar and then do it.
If you cannot, then please, at least keep your mouth shut about it. Don’t sigh when you see me with some Stephen King and say how much you just wish you had time to read. When you do this, you are much too happily martyring yourself on the altar of higher education, and if there’s anything I hate, it’s a happy martyr.
The culture at this school is one that idolizes busyness at the expense of nearly all else. When someone tells me how remarkable it is that I have time to read for fun, I hear the superiority in his or her voice. They are saying, in essence, “I’m taking my classes so seriously that I can’t read for fun. You must not be if you can sit there and read Agatha Christie.”
This needs to stop. An environment that treats a few minutes of downtime as a novelty is not a healthy one. If you consider reading an unnecessary indulgence, what else is unnecessary? Is taking a nap? Taking a walk? Eating a meal? It’s a slippery slope of unhealthy asceticism when we start denying ourselves basic things in the name of academia.
To quote a physics teacher I had in high school, “The point is not the points.” Do yourself a favor and pick up a book from the library. Or read some long-form journalism. Take a break, practice your empathy and put your homework hair shirt away.