One time I was reading American Psycho on a tram and had just gotten to a scene of breath-taking violence. I had the cover angled down, so no one could see the title, but was still paranoid that someone might look over my shoulder, see the graphic murder being committed on the page and judge me. The tram stopped and a kind-looking lady got on and made straight for the empty seat next to mine. I immediately slipped the book into my bag and spent the rest of the trip looking out of the window aimlessly, the picture of wholesome nonchalance.
For what is supposedly a solitary activity, reading seems to come with a surprisingly large invisible audience. The amount you read, who you read, and how much of it you can plough through in a year seems to say something about you—more so than any other pastime. As a result it is hard to figure out if you are reading for yourself or for other people.
Reading is encouraged and venerated in a way that few hobbies are. My television hours were closely monitored as I grew up, and films were equally rationed. Books however, were mine to consume at as fast a rate as I was able to. I was allowed to read at restaurants, in the car, at the breakfast table. During Princess Diana’s funeral, as the neighbourhood gathered around our TV, I sat in the corner and read five Goosebumps books. Parents are proud to call their children avid readers, but no one pats you on the head and says “I hear you’re keen on TV—your Mum told me you even watched last week’s Dawson’s Creek twice!” It’s odd when you think about it. Reading is seen as an “intelligent” activity, in a way that television isn’t, even though arguably both are about storytelling and learning. Perhaps it is because reading has an element of initiative, while even smart TV shows are viewed as choosing a travelator instead of walking. Reading is a slog, and so finishing a book, fairly or unfairly, is seen as more of an accomplishment than spending the same amount of time staring at a screen or playing a tape.
From the outset, reading was set up as a competitive activity for me. My school did every read-a-thon, and each year we had a reading chart of which I was determined to “win.” It always came down to me and one other girl, and, though we never said it aloud, we both wanted to be crowned Best Reader so badly that we read books we didn’t actually want to, as well as furtively reading an extra paragraph or two whenever we opened our desks during other classes.
Then, even after I’d established myself as a “fast” reader, teachers, family and friends were then concerned with what I was reading. At one point I was actually banned from the Babysitters Club shelf in the junior school library because it was deemed that I could “do better.” There was no further explanation beyond that; just that the series was somehow less worthy than other books I could be reading—despite these being specifically written with my age group in mind. Perhaps they spent too much time describing everyone’s outfits, maybe the plots were too simple. Perhaps it was just too American. It’s strange how we can “know” that some books are “lesser” but when it comes to trying to explain why, we end up just like Stacey trying to chat up a hunky, tanned lifeguard a few grades older: stumbling over our words and embarrassing ourselves.
It only got more complex from there. Reading purely for yourself would, in theory, mean reading anything and everything that appeals to you with no outside input—but could such a pure state ever truly exist? What would a somehow-literate person raised in a society-free vacuum choose to read, if anything, if they were suddenly presented with every book in the world? Do we owe it to the world to read more widely than comes naturally to us in order to become better people? Or should we just accept it as another hedonistic pursuit with no goal other than entertainment of the individual? Either way most people seem to have a foot in each camp—there are the books we want to be seen reading, and then there is everything else.
Any time I pick up a book it comes with a side order of shame. Don’t get me wrong—I love reading—but to choose any one book is to reject another, and with that comes decision paralysis. Is this the book I should be reading right now? Is it making me more intelligent or teaching me new things? Should something else be at the top of my reading stack? Is the book “trash”? Am I judgemental for mentally filtering books into “high-brow” and “merely time passing”? Does it matter that I read from both “categories” equally? Am I a terrible person for borrowing from the library instead of buying a copy? Am I reading in a bubble? Am I reading a broad enough cross section of authors?
It got to the point where choosing a book became so difficult that I’d end up starting about five and finishing none. Then, following yet another reading failure, I’d pick up either a Harry Potter or an Agatha Christie novel, read that, then start the whole process again. This went on for years and boy did the invisible audience which may or may not actually exist get judgemental about it.
The only way I managed to escape from the literary sinkhole of my own creation was to institute an ever-growing and flawed list of rules that I regularly break. How do I support the local industry without running entirely out of money? Buy books by Australian authors, borrow everything else from the library. How do I use reading to challenge myself? Then, beyond that, how can I avoid getting trapped in the cycle of reading the same kinds of books all the time? Take up recommendations, and always finish every book started, no matter how much it might feel like crawling through maple syrup. How to make sure I finish books I don’t want to finish? Harness stress constructively by borrowing them from the library; angry emails about due dates are very motivational and the shame of walking in to pay a 70c fine is enough to fuel at least thirty minutes of speed-reading.
There is still a part of me that wants to be crowned Best Reader. I now know that this is an ever-moving goalpost. It’s not a case of reading the most books, the longest books, or the most complex books. It’s just a case of trying to ignore the invisible audience and reading any books at all—while reconciling myself to the fact that, even if it’s of old age, I’ll probably die with unread novels on my shelf.
This is the second in a four-part series called 'How Should A person Read?', edited by Khalid Warsame and published in The Lifted Brow #34. Get your copy here.
Elizabeth Flux is a freelance writer and the editor-in-chief of Writers Bloc and a past editor of Voiceworks and On Dit.