My Year of Reading for Pleasure


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The first chapter book I ever read without adult intervention was E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. I was 6 years old and it took  me months to finish it. Or maybe it only took a few weeks. Never trust a 6-year-old’s concept of time. Regardless, by the time I finished Charlotte’s Web the corners of the book were smushed and the cover was missing. I read that book. I don’t remember too much about the experience except this: I couldn’t believe that I was reading a chapter book  all by myself. It seemed impossibly mature.  My next literary milestone occurred a few years later when I read Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, a lovely tale of friendship between two 5th graders. Then (SPOILER ALERT) one of the friends falls into a river and drowns. This was the first book I read in which a human character — a kid no less! — dies.  I knew the death was coming — my classmates spread the news like a dark secret (“Did you read the book where the girl dies?”) — but the sadness I experienced as I read about little Leslie’s tragic drowning still surprised me. How sweet and liberating it was to cry over something that had no consequences in the real world.

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Naturally this led me, at the tender age of 11, to  Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, the big papa of children’s literature death porn. If you’re not familiar with this tearjerker, it’s about a little boy who, after much hard work and much saving of money in an old K.C. Baking Powder can, finally purchases two coonhounds, Little Ann and Old Dan. Why did he want these dogs? To hunt raccoons of course! Old Dan and Little Ann were topnotch coonhounds. Then they die. And let’s be clear: these dogs don’t just die, they perform death in the most melodramatic, Oscar-baiting fashion imaginable. Remember this passage?

“What I saw was more than I could stand. The noise I heard had been made by Little Ann. All her life she had slept by Old Dan’s side. And although he was dead, she had left the doghouse, had come back to the porch, and snuggled up by his side.”

I’m surprised that Little Ann didn’t rise up on her hind legs and recite a soliloquy about love and companionship before collapsing in a heap onto Old Dan’s grave. But those epic death scenes weren’t enough for Wilson Rawls. He continues the torture when he has his narrator reflect on the lives of his faithful pups:

“After the last shovel of dirt was patted in place, I sat down and let my mind drift back through the years. I thought of the old K. C. Baking Powder can, and the first time I saw my pups in the box at the depot. I thought of the fifty dollars, the nickels and dimes, and the fishermen and blackberry patches.

I looked at his grave and, with tears in my eyes, I voiced these words: ‘You were worth it, old friend, and a thousand times over.'”

I defy you to read Where the Red Fern Grows and not have your heart broken. I remember finishing that book, in the summer after 5th grade, and running to my mom’s room, sobbing. All I could do was hold up the book and whine “They both DIED!” My mom nodded and smiled. I think she was relieved. 11-year-olds cry a lot but book crying is much easier to handle than real-life crying.

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In those early heady days of book consumption, I found that, in addition to crying, I liked being terrified. I read most of the Stephen King canon, which I would not recommend for young children. Seriously, 11-year-old’s should not be allowed to read It. After that I was terrified of my sink. And gutters. And really, everything. That’s some top notch parenting, Klein family.

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Sure, I read some of the children’s lit classics, like Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and the period/masturbation/wet dreams books by Jude Blume (Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, Deenie, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t) but I really loved the trash. There were the Sweet Valley High books,  Flowers in the Attic (V.C. Andrews, you dirty, dirty bird), and Archie digests.  I loved reading so much that when I went to college, I had no doubts about becoming an English major. While my friends complained about their homework, I lounged in my bed reading A View from the Bridge (Arthur Miller), Geography III (Elizabeth Bishop) and Nightwood (Djuna Barnes) and loving my major. Most of the time it didn’t even feel like work to me. Ironically, it was when I went to graduate school to become a professional reader of books that I stopped reading fiction completely. Part of this had to do with the fact that I decided to study film, rather than literature. But also, having to devote so much time and energy to  reading and decoding dense theoretical texts put me off the idea of reading for pleasure. For 10 years the only books I read “for pleasure” were the Harry Potter series and US Weekly. 

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This changed when my husband brought home a Kindle Fire last winter. It was a holiday gift from his boss. I wasn’t too interested –you know, since “I don’t read.” But I had been hearing a lot about Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series  from, well, everyone, and I was tempted to read it myself. I had been tempted by sensational kid-murdering novels before, of course, but usually I would tell myself that I didn’t have time to read. I’m a working mother and I don’t get to recline on a couch somewhere and read a young adult novel about a dystopian world in which teenagers are forced to kill each other. Of course, I could watch a film or TV show about a dystopian world in which teenagers are forced to kill each other (because that’s not pleasure, it’s “work”). When I finally decided to download a copy of The Hunger Games on New Year’s Eve 2011, I did so because I thought it might be therapeutic. My father had died a few days before year’s end and reading seemed like a good way to work through my emotions. So I read.

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A few days later I finished The Hunger Games and decided, on a whim, to buy the sequel, Mockingjay. I bought Catching Fire one week later. And that’s how it went for several months. I found myself reading several books each month. I still had two kids and a full-time job and dishes to wash, but I found a way to fit reading in to my daily schedule. If I ever thought that maybe I shouldn’t be spending so much time reading — that I could be finishing up an article or folding some laundry or letting the children out of their cages for their daily 10 minutes of sun exposure — I reminded myself: this is therapeutic. So I kept reading.

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Now it’s approximately 11 months after I first picked up the Kindle and I have read a total of 23 books. Here they are, categorized by my own personalized genres:

Fun stuff I never would have let myself read in grad school:

The Hunger Games, Mockingjay, Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins)

50 Shades of Grey (E.L. James)

Twilight (Stephenie Meyer)

Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)

Books written by funny people I like:

Is Everyone Hanging Out without Me? (Mindy Kaling)

Bossypants (Tina Fey)

Half Empty (David Rackoff)

Sad books where people die or are already dead:

Swamplandia! (Karen Russell)

The Descendants (Kaui Hart Hemmings)

The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz)

Dysfunctional family stories

Little Children, The Leftovers (Tom Perrotta)

Motherland (Amy Sohn)

The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides)

Room (Emma Donoghue)

Dystopian and/or fantasy

The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)

A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)

Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)

Misc.

Pulphead (John Jeremiah Sullivan)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)

That’s three times as many books as I read in the preceding decade. Why did I read so much?  I think the e-book format definitely compelled me to read more. The convenience of being able to purchase a book whenever I wanted to coupled with the portability of the device — try propping a real novel on a gym elliptical machine — has definitely made me more inclined to read and to read often. In fact, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey “The average reader of e-books says she has read 24 books (the mean number) in the past 12 months, compared with an average of 15 books by a non-e-book consumer.” I also found that social media really encouraged my reading habits. Every time I finished a book I could go on Twitter and ask people what my next book should be — one thing people are always happy to share are book recommendations. I also got involved with an online book club on Facebook. The group, composed primarily of other female academics, led me to read two books I never would have picked up otherwise: 50 Shades of Grey and Gone Girl.  This culminated with a drunken live reading of 50 Shades of Grey at a conference, which was as delightful as it sounds (at least it was for us, less so for our bewildered bartender). More recently I decided to read Twilight. After tweeting about this decision, several other Twitter-friends decided to join me in the endeavor, forming an impromptu book club (here is a link to a Storify of our conversations). I have not enjoyed Twilight, but participating in Twilight-related tweeting has motivated me to finish. This sense of community, whether it’s an organized book club or simply sharing my thoughts about a recent read with online friends, has greatly added to my reading enjoyment this year.

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I’ve also read a lot this year because I finally remembered that I like to read. It seems like a silly thing to forget but as I get further along in my career it has become easier to marginalize the activities that give me pleasure simply because they serve no purpose other than the giving of pleasure. As if pleasure is purposeless or wasteful. Perhaps this is just a symptom of being a working parent but I suspect it has more to do with the larger culture of academia, which stresses a lifestyle in which everything — including leisure time –must be quantified, accounted for, and somehow contribute to one’s research or pedagogy. In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education that hit just a little too close to home for me, “It’s Your Duty to be Miserable!” ,William Pannapacker describes the typical thought process of the academic:

“If someone asks, ‘How are you?,’ I sigh, shrug, and say, ‘Busy, like everyone else.’ If pressed, I will admit that I spent some time with my family—the way a Mormon might confess to having tried a beer, once. For more than 20 years, I have worn what Ian Bogost has called ‘the turtlenecked hairshirt.’I can’t help it; self-abnegation is the deepest reflex of my profession, and it’s getting stronger all the time.”

In 2012 I have made an attempt to get out of my hairshirt, one e-book at a time. I’m not sure that I will continue my frenetic reading pace in 2013, but I have definitely re-Kindled my love affair with the written word (pun intended). I have found that reading for pleasure is valuable because it is pleasurable, and nothing more.

For those of you out there with e-readers, have you found that you now read more? If so, why do you think that is? What is the best book you read in 2012? And what should I read in 2013?

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23 thoughts on “My Year of Reading for Pleasure

  1. The Kindle app on my phone has been a sort of crazy thing for me and my reading activities. Like you alluded to, school always got in the way of reading for pleasure, so I was lucky if I got to read three non-academic books over the course of a year.

    But having an e-reading app (and having a 9-to-5 job with a commute that is often longer than it should be due to traffic) has allowed me to ready…LOTS. I started the Hunger Games trilogy in 2011, finished it in early 2012 and then was off. A little after that, a friend of mine started reading the Thrawn Trilogy from the Star Wars novels, so I read along with her, and took that time to read a bunch of Star Wars novels that I hadn’t read (I devoured them in middle school and high school, at the peak of the SW re-emergence in popular culture).

    I read 52 Star Wars books from March to September. 52. All on through an e-reading app. (I also read another 10 or so non-Star Wars books in that time as well.)

    And then there’s also all the comics I’ve read thanks to digital comics (I don’t want to try to count).

    I read some physical books this year as well, but mostly manga where digital versions are a little harder to come by. I read around 10 physical books this year.

    I think I’ve read more this year than I since…I don’t even know how long.

  2. 52! Holy hell Noel. So you don’t think you would have read as much without an e-reader, even with the commute? Why do you think that is? I feel like the Kindle really motivated me to read more but I can’t quite put my finger on why.

    • I think there’s a few reasons why I wouldn’t have read as much without an e-reader, even with the commute:

      1) The Borders that was right next to my house closed, leaving my city without a major bookstore (we have a very tiny used bookstore that specializes in romance novels and 90s fiction), and I needed someplace else to buy books from.

      2) Space issues. I have no shelves left between DVDs and books I already own. I’d be a lot less likely to buy physical books due to this, because they would pile up on my floor. Which some have, though those I’ve been meaning to donate. The immaterial nature of the book means I don’t have to worry about that (I have other concerns, like the rights of ownership, so if I really WANT a book, I will buy a physical copy).

      3) Impulse buying. The problem with the e-reader is that it turns the act of buying into a too-easy process. 1 click of the mouse or tap of the screen, and the book is yours. You don’t have to swipe a card, go to a store, or go through a typical check-out process and so you end up thinking about the transaction less and just the gratification that comes with a new book.

      I think #3 is the biggest reason that I ended up reading so much.

  3. I loved this post! Thanks so much for writing it. First, it close to home since I felt that reading has become something I have com to dread since grad school – probably because lately it has been student writing and quant work I have been reading, when it used to be something I loved, and secondly because I made a goal to read for fun this X-mas break and bought the Kindle Paperwhite to achieve it. Yes, I find reading easier and more likely on a e-reader (although for some reason I mostly only read articles and pdfs on my iPad and books on my Kindle) because it can always be with me and I can switch from work books to pleasure books in seconds.

    I also found work has ironically been my transport back to pleasure reading. I am working on teen shows like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars and was curious about their paratexts of Alloy novels. Neither were great books by any stretch of the imagination but they sort of ripped off the band-aid of returning to fiction (particularly the oddly relaxing and addictive YA fiction).

    Thanks for the great post!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Kyra–it is amazing how grad school can put you off reading. Kind of ironic, really. Glad to hear you are finding your way back! And yes, I have read several YA novels this year (something I NEVER would have done in the past) and it’s been so much fun.

  4. That goddamn Where The Red Fern Grows – almost nothing has broken my heart more. Try The Grief of Others and This American Life. Also, if you liked Oscar Wao and haven’t read Drown, do so immediately. Then, pick up his newest. And grab Dear American Airlines to peruse while flying

    • Hi Anne!
      My book club is reading Diaz’s THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER this month–very excited because I adored OSCAR WAO. I will look into DROWN as well. I’ve not heard of THE GRIEF OF OTHERS and THIS AMERICAN LIFE–why are they good picks?
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. Great post Amanda! Interesting to hear how both ebooks and social media help you to read (as there are of course people who argue such technology is going to be the death of reading!) What a great year of reading you’ve had: I loved A Visit from the Good Squad. Why did you categorize it as Dystopian/Fantasy? That surprised me. As for books to read, I always recommend Zadie Smith! White Teeth or On Beauty are brilliant. Her latest NW is good too, but more work. Divergent by Veronica Roth (Book 1 of a trilogy) is expected to be the next HUnger Games. (Movie is currently being cast, I think.) I consider ‘pleasure’ reading to be vital. Without a book on the go, I feel unmoored.

    • Hey Margot
      I also loved A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD and find myself trying to convince people to read it all the time. I put it in my “dystopian” category because of the final chapter but I am now realizing that it probably should be in my “dysfunctional family stories” category (one of my favorite categories!). I guess that shows the strong impact that final chapter had on me–I think she could have expanded that to a full book. I have been considering Zadie Smith for a while now but your “the next HUNGER GAMES” endorsement has made me curious about DIVERGENT.
      Thanks for reading!

  6. It’s uncanny how your reading history mirrors my own – from the early heartbreakers, the too early Stephen King (The Shining, age 10), the smut, the lit major and then the grad school and 1st job breakdown. I’ve only started actually reading again in the last two years and one thing that really helped was a non-academic book club. Smart ladies, no academics! That keeps me reading about a book a month, in addition to before-bed serial stuff (Harry Potter, then Game of Thrones, next The hunger games). The iPad helps too :)

      • No academics in the group (doctors, techies, tattoo parlor owner) but very voracious and smart readers (plus we cook dinner and have lots of wine, so that helps).

        Our recent faves: Goon Squad, Zeitoun, Cutting for Stone, Little Bee, Quiet as they Come (interlinked short stories from a Vietnamese- American SF friend of mine)

  7. I love this post, especially since we talked about this reading renaissance before. I also loved A Visit From the Goon Squad, and I now want to read the last chapter again, since it really stuck with me too.

    I talked to a tween patient the other day, asking her if she ever felt depressed. She admitted to feeling depressed once, “when I finished a book series. The Hunger Games. I just thought…there’s nothing else to read!”. I asked her how she recovered, and she told me she started the Harry Potter series.

    You were really into BFG when we were little. Was that a chapter book? I remember reading Where the Red Fern Grows in 3rd grade…out loud…with our entire class. Ack.

    Another thing, Maybe you are now experiencing another phase of parenthood, where the kids are a little bigger, a different sort of needy, and they allow you to do something on your own?

  8. Hi KG
    Love that conversation with your tween patient–what a perfectly tweenish thing to say!

    Your memory is good my friend, but not that good–I’ve never read BFG. What I think you are remembering is that I was really into Roald Dahl in general. I loved JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH and CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. I also made the mistake of reading his autobiography, BOY, thinking it was also a children’s book. Instead I learned about how Dahl used to get caned for being naughty while in boarding school.

    Do you remember when everyone in our grade seemed to be reading BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA? Wasn’t that 3rd grade? Also, I am pretty sure you are the one who told me about FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC. Dirty.

  9. Bridge to Terabithia was the first book to make me cry. I was in bed reading when I should have been asleep. I went downstairs sobbing not able to explain to my parents what was wrong. It was the first time I cried about not only something fictional, but about something wholly unrelated to myself. Thus began my reading to manipulate my own emotions – sad, scared, titillated, inspired. I was a voracious reader for pleasure until law school. It’s taken downshifting my career to find books again. Unemployment and the Kindle did it for me. I just got the iPad mini which I love!! Ereader and fully functional tablet.

  10. This post is such a trip down the memory hole of my youth. All of the youth death trauma (“the big papa of children’s literature death porn” FTW), the naughty naughty VC Andrews and Sweet Valley High (I had a WHOLE SHELF of my dollhouse bookshelves dedicated to SVH), the twisted Steven King stage….

    My favorite reading experience this year was the FLBC’s team reading of #50Shades, but I’m having a hard time picking my favorite book of the year. Loved GOON SQUAD and THE ROBBER BRIDE, just finished MARRIAGE PLOT…I think it was the guilt-free re-reading of the HUNGER GAMES trilogy for my spring IMR piece.

  11. Fantastic post. So much about what you said echoes with my own recent experience with reading “for pleasure.” I used to lie to tell myself that the theoretical books and articles I was teaching were read “for pleasure,” but I recognize that that’s more or less what happens when you have a job in academia: you’re made to feel like any non-“work” stuff you read is frivolous and unimportant. And the constant “quantification” creep in academia is something that, given recent events in my own life, I am trying to do without.

    I do have a Kindle, and it’s loaded with stuff (the HG trilogy, the collected H.P. Lovecraft, tons of science fiction and horror) but have surprisingly read LESS since I got it. I think this is because of what Patton Oswalt calls “ETEWAF: everything that ever was available forever” and the cultural shrug that results when one has the capacity to consume every little piece of pop culture ever created with a quick mouseclick. There’s something exciting about having the ability to download so many ebooks so quickly and daunting about the prospect of reading them and tiring about remembering the fact that they are in a permanent on-deck pile.

    This might have to do with my own cultural consumption habits, but I compare the fact that I have a lot of unread ebooks to the fact that I have a lot (1+ TB, he mentioned, humblebragging) of unlistened-to mp3s. There’s literally not enough time to consume them all, so I don’t bother consuming any of them.

    As I always do, I will make a promise to read more in 2013 and then, come July, realize I failed to do so. But I’m really excited about reading GONE GIRL and Justin Cronin’s THE TWELVE (Have you read his THE PASSAGE? So good.) just as soon as this neverending pile of student work disappears from my (virtual) desk.

    • very interesting Tony! I know what you mean–back when I was an avid reader I would sometimes go to the bookstore and buy 3 or 4 books at once. Then I would be fraught with indecision over what to start reading–sometimes I’d start once and then if it wasn’t immediately gripping, I’d stop and start another. With the Kindle I only buy one book at a time–I won’t allow myself to buy a new book until I finish the previous one. So maybe you should stop buying and start reading?

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