Assorted novelties: On not reading

A woman pushing away books on a table
(Jadyn Lee • The Student Life)

Since last March, I’ve devoted most of my weekends to free reading. I shut my laptop, push away my schoolwork and dive into whatever book sits on top of my bedroom shelf. Reading has been my escape from deadlines and the persistent grind of school via Zoom. I reset my mental clock by plopping on the couch and slipping into a new story.

This leisure reading formed the basis for my column — writing about these books encouraged deeper reflection into why I read instead of knitting or watching TV. Every other week I have something concrete, a written testament proving to myself (and my mom and perhaps two other friends who actually read this column) that reading is something I do

I was perhaps demonstrating something else at the same time. Writing a book column is undoubtedly a form of signaling. Some people wear Star Wars T-shirts or post lengthy Instagram stories about a particular topic, but I write a book column showcasing my identity as a reader to my social circle. 

Not that other people care about how I, Anna Solomon, spend my Saturday nights. But during a time when social interactions are scarce, declaring my identity on the internet reinforces the kind of person I want to be. I am a reader; I pass my time productively. In a world of social media influencers with their own curated brands, I put on a similar performance around reading and writing about books. 

It’s hard to write about books, though, when I haven’t read for fun since the semester began. Like my fellow students, I’m chained to endless assignments, and when the workload lightens — which is rarely ever — I can’t fathom reading for pleasure.

This is not to say that good conversations on books must revolve around a specific text, and I’ve argued this point in past columns. Rather, I feel guilty for writing this column, almost like my “brand” as a book columnist is a sham. 

To write about a specific topic implies a sort of authoritative ownership: I write about books, therefore I claim books as a part of myself.

In this reading hiatus, I can’t claim ownership of this identity. I’m not a real reader anymore, just some cheap traveling salesman peddling fake products — not to be melodramatic. We’re all hard on ourselves for underperforming parts of our identity in realms outside reading. It’s the embarrassment of proclaiming your conversion to veganism on social media and then scarfing down secret pizza bagels. In a world where everyone has a “brand” cultivated on social media, the particulars of our identities are something to be managed and owned. To avoid confusion — both inside ourselves and with our audience — we have to stay consistent. 

I’ve always defined being a reader as something different from being someone who simply reads. It’s the difference between reading street signs every day and actively devoting time to books and enjoying it. I’ve always identified as a reader; reading defines my free time, and it’s my only hobby. It’s the same distinction between someone who cooks and a chef: Although I make a mean bowl of morning oatmeal, I am most certainly not a chef. 

But this distinction seems arbitrary. Of course, most people read, but few people, especially busy students, declare themselves to the world as readers. There’s something in our current media culture, however, that encourages us to adhere to parts of our identity — or even the activities we enjoy as leisure — with persistent clarity. We can’t just be ourselves; we have to be ourselves doing something. I am not just Anna. I am Anna the reader who likes Big Thief and cereal and political science, and breaking from this narrative means reevaluating my entire sense of self. 

The pressure for our identity to be legible — for our “brand” to communicate a distinct personality — leaves no room for change. One week I might read a ton, and the next week I might not. This doesn’t mean I’m not a reader but rather that interests and attention vary. As long as I’m being kind to others, supporting my loved ones and diligently social distancing, my leisure time is for my enjoyment, regardless of what I choose to fill it with. 

I’m tempted to sign off this conversation here and proclaim that no one really cares. No need to get all twisted up about taking a few weeks off, right? But I actually think other people might care. My identity crisis this week could apply to anyone who feels like they’re constantly performing some part of themselves, both for their internal spectator and for the world around them. I wish we could all just chill out. I wish I could just chill out. Perhaps the issue isn’t just with me, though. 

Anyways, I’d love to finally start my book of short stories, but I’m probably going to go watch YouTube compilations of Jimmy Fallon breaking character on “Saturday Night Live.” God, he really couldn’t keep it together. 

Anna Solomon PZ ’23 is one of TSL’s book columnists. This is because she likes books a lot. She also likes cereal, but there’s no cereal column at TSL, so she makes do with books.

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