By Charlotte Smalley
It goes unsaid that studying a literature degree exposes you to a munificent reading experience, from the well-weathered classics to experimental physical manifestations of poetry. However, amid this wondrous bounty, when you’re tasked with cramming upwards of four texts into your weekly workload (often including producing content for workshops if you’re a creative writer), it’s easy for reading to become a mechanised process. Fear not! You will find joy in reading once more. Start right here and now by casting your attention to these strategies to re-ignite your passion for literature after studying it for so long.
1. Text vs. Book
Slogging through pages of dense descriptions, attempting to absorb significance whilst your mind wanders astray to what you’re cooking for tea that night – assigned reading is often not what you might be choosing to read as a pastime (I apologise, Ferdinand de Saussure). Part of realigning yourself with the pleasure of reading, rather than its process, is choosing the books that you want to spend your time on as opposed to the ones you feel you should spend your time on. We all have A List, but it doesn’t need to be from your module-organised Reading List.
In honesty, sometimes you may find enjoyment in re-exploring a novel you were initially interested in before reading it for study. Yes, it may feel tainted from discerning its linguistic rhetoric at length, but resist this repulsion. I studied Jane Eyre both at GCSE and for a first-year module and felt as though I had picked it apart to the point of disintegration. Upon reaching for it again after graduation, I certainly wasn’t expecting to glide through it so smoothly. The simple psychological phenomenon of viewing it as a book rather than a text did wonders for my enjoyment, because this time I was in control of my reading of it. Being unconfined to a time I had to finish it by or the identification of devices for argument was utterly liberating. It sounds condescending, but be selfish with your reading.
2. Reading Energy
Even when it’s an all-consuming, exciting book, we must acknowledge that reading is tiring work; my nose often served as a bookmark in the late-night reading of my youth. Across education, it’s easy to feel like you have to conserve your ‘reading energy’ for your work, particularly in a degree where reading is the work. Hence it can often feel like you are ‘wasting’ this precious reading energy on the texts that don’t ‘need’ to be read, devoting your relaxation time to Netflix instead as it divides research and recreation more definitively.
If you like, allot a timeframe for a different, more relaxed reading session. You might find by scheduling time for it, your mind is tricked into that ‘productive’ headspace, shifting the subconscious guilt associated with reading for fun instead of work. And over time, this will feel more natural and automatic. For example, completing ‘study reading’ in the mornings and revelling in ‘fun reading’ in afternoons or evenings – even just bringing your ‘fun’ book for the half an hour while waiting for your train. Make time for restful reading.
Or follow my example for my postgraduate study: you can justify any book as ‘background reading’ if you consider the right angle; we are literature students after all – we can argue anything.*wink wink
3. Slow Reader
Certainly at university, speed-reading becomes an art-form. There are additional workshops available dedicated to the skill of scanning a text for useful information. Undoubtedly, this is a practical talent when adhering to weighty programme reading lists, however, it is less acclaimed for successfully enjoying a book. Skimming a book (or looking up the SparkNotes) to make sure you have enough of an idea of the plot for seminar discussion may be helpful in the short-term, but won’t fill you with the same delight of ‘properly’ experiencing the text.
After study, you may find you’ve integrated the habit of reading quickly, but sometimes taking a conscious effort to read slowly and purposefully significantly enhances its pleasure. I found this particularly effective in works with poetic attention to language, such as Virginia Woolf’s The Waves or Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. You miss the undiluted joy in such craft when the time isn’t taken to truly absorb it. Read soft, read slow. (Someone embroider that on a pillow).
4. Canon Candid
As an English Literature student, you are admittedly subject to relatives doubting the academic authority of your degree – a hurtful assumption, especially when your sister is studying her undergraduate in Genetics at the same time. You get mighty bored of hearing the distinction between “Oh! That must be interesting?” and “Oh? That must be interesting.” in response to “What are you two studying?”. As such, you probably feel the indignant desire to legitimise your study in the easiest way you can think of: reading well-regarded texts. After graduation, you finally have time to read all the books and poetry you cast aside to get that dissertation in on time; whoo! But the first thing you read does not have to be high literature.
In order to separate productivity from reading, you might find it most ‘productive’ to re-engage your reading senses with an ‘easy’ read, not necessarily the Swann’s Way you’ve been meaning to tackle when you finally get the chance. Never be ashamed of what book you’re holding – if it engages you, nothing else matters. The first things I properly read again after submitting my dissertation were The Hunger Games prequel, Suzanne Collins’s The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, and the latest volume of the Black Butler manga (that twist after the Sphere Music Hall arc?! I was not prepared). Read because you like it, not because you think you should like it.
5. Writing Again
If you studied creative writing, it’s likely you may be suffering from the same fatigue in your writing as well as your reading. Much as with reading, my advice is to diffuse the pressure of productivity, accept that not every piece of writing demands masterpiece status or even needs an audience. Try engaging in the low-pressure act of ‘free’ or ‘automatic’ writing – simply putting pen to paper and inking whatever inkling comes to mind. Less extravagantly, journaling is a good pipeline back into writing for fun instead of for assignments. Removing the expectation of having to present your work for scrutiny can be the key to dislodging your writer’s block.
Or perhaps the excitement of an audience and promise of feedback spurs you on? In which case, joining a workshop group or event may serve to reignite that fire. Personally, I partake in a bi-monthly zoom call with my past course-mates where we send work (sometimes a theme decided at the last meeting or simply a piece we’d like a second opinion on) in advance, ready for feedback and discussion during the call. Equally, (either physically or virtually) set time with your group to write alongside each other – there is commitment in camaraderie and you may feel more motivated in the presence of other writers.
In essence, with this list, my advice is to try to alleviate yourself of the expectation and pressure when it comes to reading. Re-associate it with pleasure instead of deadlines and discussion bullet points. You likely chose to study literature because you loved reading it in your spare time too; regardless of how your degree choice fits into your life following university, you deserve to enjoy it again. Upon reaching this conclusion, I immediately challenge you to choose a book from your List, let the literary magnetism guide ye, and read the first page this moment (or the moment you get home). Good luck and happy reading!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born and raised in Southampton, Charlotte Smalley is currently undertaking her doctorate in Creative Writing at the University of Surrey. Her earliest prose piece, Polly’s Surprise Party, written at the wise age of six, has been heralded as a masterpiece by her mother. Since such success, she wanders and wonders the realm of poetry and its hybridised possibilities, morphing psychoanalytic theory with experimental form.
One thought on “Getting Back into ‘Real Reading’ After Your Degree”
I finished my English literature degree decades ago, but I still remember this phase! I was traumatised by having to read so much, so fast, and not being allowed to examine it for my own responses, or respect it as a work that needed to speak quietly and in its own time. Ever since, I’ve been a resolutely slow and savouring reader. Welcome back to books!