How I stopped worrying and read what I liked

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There are a lot of people who will eagerly tell you their takes on how you should read books. I've heard them all. You should read only for pleasure or for moral improvement. You should read the classics and enjoy them or you should disregard the canon entirely.

Fangirl by Rainbow RowellEspecially if you're part of the literary community, reading the hottest new release becomes like a second job. There are always books you just have to read and have an opinion on. The pressure to have read the right books can be so intense that people will lie about the books they have read.

Last year, apart from the reading I did for university, I didn't force myself to read anything. I read what I wanted: a few literary books, but mostly romances and re-reading books I had read before. And the entire year I felt a persistent guilt about it.

While I believe that pleasure reading should be pleasurable, I couldn't help but worry whether I was a real reader if I wasn't challenging myself. Shouldn't I be broadening my horizons, opening myself up to new ideas? The average person can supposedly only read about 4800 books in their lifetime. In the limited time we are given, isn't re-reading a waste of time? Was I reading the books I should be reading?

It wasn't a conscious decision, to drift towards re-reading. 2018 was a year of life changes for me and comfort reads were touchstones. There can be a deep sense of relief in re-reading books. Because you know the plot already, you are just spending time with the characters and the language.

But it's not just comfort you get when you return to 'comfort books'. When we re-read, the books act as a time capsule and we are simultaneously reading through the eyes of who were were when we first read them and the person we are now. One of my favourite books, Fangirl, follows the protagonist Cath starting university. When I first read it, I deeply empathised with Cath. But when I re-read Fangirl, lines that previously mirrored my feelings about life, didn't anymore.

I still found comfort in revisiting the book, but I realised that I had worked past many of the insecurities that plagued Cath. I had grown up a little more when I wasn't looking. Metaphors and ideas I hadn't paid much attention to before jumped out at me. In re-reading, I wasn't just broadening my horizons, but deepening my understanding of the books and myself.

 

"Reading can be transformative and it can open new avenues or shift cultural conversations. Reading is also at its core a hobby, which shouldn't feel like a chore or a sacrilege."

 

As the year went on, I started to confront the fact that my guilt also stemmed from defensiveness. Even knowing that the bias against romance novels isn't based on fact and is based heavily in sexism, I worried about the judgements people would make about me if they knew I was reading romance. When I bought romance books from the bookstore, I placed them facedown on the counter and tried to smile back at the raised eyebrow of the clerk. In conversations, I lied to people when they asked me what I was reading.

Following romance authors on Twitter and reading websites like Smart Bitches Trashy Books helped me not just know about gender bias about romance, but truly unlearn it for myself. I realised my own definition of what was challenging was based on a lifetime of hate-reading books I thought I should like, while the romance books that I was reading were often dealing with heavy topics like colonisation, racism, trauma and mental illness from perspectives different to my own. The vehicle was more accessible, but that didn't mean that there was no substance. When I started to recommend romance novels to people, it felt like I was taking a stand against the shame I had been told to feel about reading romance.

I've always been a reader. I think that we, those who have adopted 'reader' as part of their identities, are the worst offenders of making value judgements about what and how people read. We get serious and reverential about books because any attack on the sanctity of books feels like an attack on the self. Take the almost violent reaction to Marie Kondo's suggestion that if your books don't spark joy, then you should throw them out.

Reading can be transformative and it can open new avenues or shift cultural conversations. Reading is also at its core a hobby, which shouldn't feel like a chore or a sacrilege. These two truths can coexist. Kondo does have a point — if it doesn't spark joy, or at least some emotion that isn't boredom, why should we continue reading books that we think we should?

My taste in books will probably shift again at some point, but I'm choosing not to worry about it. At the end of last year, after reviewing what books I had read I said, 'I guess I've just been reading a lot of comfort reads this year.' My friend replied, 'That's fair enough.' I smiled and let out a deep breath.

 

 

Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, literature, reading, romance novels

 

 

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Existing comments

Great read (and no one made me!) Thank you :-) Probably helpful to be familiar with at least some works that might not float-our-boat but are important to know something about: 1984; Brave New World... Otherwise who's going to police FB for misquotes?! (I _did_ read both, enjoyed them, and surprised myself that I did)
Richard | 24 January 2019


Thanks Neve. I admit it: I am serious and reverential about books. I will not join a book club as I like to choose my own books - not very social and a bit elitist, sadly. These days I am leaning towards non-fiction. I do listen to advice about books and then I'll read my own choice. Reading is very much a solitary activity and I would guess that's why its pleasures are idiosyncratic.
Pam | 24 January 2019


I liked the sincerity and honesty that comes through in this article especially because I tend to be quite selective about my reading. If a book or an article does not engage my attention I switch to something else.
Vijay | 25 January 2019


Thank you, Neve - as usual you have a refreshing point of view and you express it very well. I am just a bit confused by one sentence in your article: The average person can supposedly only read about 4800 books in their lifetime. I am perhaps missing the boat here, but if I live to be 80 I would need to read 60 books a year to meet that mark, and this means that the average person is reading better than one book a week - I think I read a fair bit but my records for last year say I read only 31 books. Is your figure really for the average person?
Dennis Sleigh | 29 January 2019


We read for different reasons, sometimes yes, it’s a “hobby” but it can be for work, to learn something in particular, for comfort etcetc. I am 70 plus and so my re-reading isn’t so much of plots that I recall! But of books that I recall having loved once - maybe 50 years ago. I do like to challenge myself and try new books. I was very disappointed on rereading EM Forster whom I used to like...but no more.... fashions certainly change
Jen | 01 February 2019


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