At sixteen, I was often late for class. Weighed down by a satchel, heavy with tomes from fantasy writer George R.R. Martin, I lumbered up each step. I brought two along just in case I read the first gargantuan book in a day. Then, I wasn’t just a reader: I was the Reader. I was the kid who spent more time in the library than out of it, befriending the school librarians. I was a member of the invitation-only Carnegie book group; a small group of teenagers across all year groups devouring the Carnegie Medal shortlist, debating which book should win. I religiously kept up a Goodreads account. One of my first holidays away from home was camping in a muddy field outside the Hay-on-Wye book festival, sharing a few WKDs with friends, while planning which of our favourite authors were going to sign our precious books. Reading wasn’t just a hobby: it was a lifestyle. But by the time I reached A-Levels, I was starting to lose my form. By the time I graduated from university, I couldn’t even put “reading” as one of my interests on my Tinder bio.
With the loss of reading, my identity shifted beneath my feet. I rebranded myself as a cinephile. It’s easier to take a gamble on a film that’ll take you an afternoon to watch than a book which takes a week to read. But I realised that I miss reading. Other people I know spent 2020 nose buried in books, then excitedly chatted about how good that particular reading experience was. I want to be a reader again.
Many of us have experienced this love affair crumbling into dust. We’re too busy. We’re too stressed. We’ve just spent a whole day at university analysing texts, and the thought at staring at another page makes us feel ill. Reading doesn’t offer the same amount of comfort as it once did. But these excuses don’t seem to get to the root of the problem. In the first lockdown, when time seemed eternal and the days brought up the same hum-drum pattern of life, I only read two books at most. Yet, I spent enough time on social media that I was probably reading at least a small paperback worth of words every week. Why had I turned my back on reading?
Before, as the Reader, I would read everything. I would read dystopian Young Adult fiction. I would read YA romance. I’d dip my toes into YA action-adventure. After all, I was a teenager. Young Adult was aimed at me, with its identikit sixteen-year-old female characters and love triangles. It was what I was meant to be reading. There are many Young Adult books I’d happily re-read, from Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series to Siobhan Dowd’s Bog Child. And although many adults do enjoy reading Young Adult fiction, many grow out of it too. I was utterly unaware that the Young Adult genre isn’t an enforced point in time. I was disillusioned when I was sixteen going on seventeen, and the books that were meant to appeal to me didn’t anymore. I was at a loss with what to do.
It doesn’t matter how many foreign films I watch, reading has always seemed intellectually superior. Reading comes with the image of the nerd, complete with thick-framed glasses and A*s on the report card. The fear of not living up to that particular level of genius seeped into my reading as a teenager. Even though I enjoyed Jane Austen and Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, I found the prospect of reading classics terrifying. I wasn’t curious, I was worried that I wouldn’t understand the writing. The intellectualism surrounding cinema isn’t as intense, and it’s a respite from the genius reader trope that numbed my curiosity like a winter chill. But in a bizarre twist of fate, it is probably the beautifully written and the intellectually rigorous novels that I would actually love to read. I read Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell and The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton this year. I was immediately captivated by their writing. I wanted to read more books with writing that seemed to be woven from starlight. But even if I’m compelled to hunt for the gorgeously written books, a spanner is thrown into the works. It is almost impossible to google for well-written books alone. Search for books similar to Hamnet and The Miniaturist, and I’m given a bog-standard list of historical fiction.
Intellectualism had scared me off, and for a long time, it seemed that my identity of the Reader had been trapped in amber. I’ve stumbled around in the dark trying to discover what I actually like. Even when I feel that I’ve got the reading bug back, it’s easy to lose momentum as I hop haphazardly from title to title. A complete resurrection of the Reader is thrown into doubt. But, in an effort to turn a new leaf, I have created a new account on TheStoryGraph – a site which promises to be a little more thorough than GoodReads -and set my 2021 aim to a modest but achievable 12 books. I don’t want reading to be relegated to a part of my past, like that time I tried out knitting. I yearn to snuggle down with a piping hot mug of tea and a good book. Forget year of the Ox, 2021 is going to be the year of the bookworm.
Words by Lucy Clarke
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