There’s nothing like doing an English Literature degree to destroy your love of reading.
(Well, maybe DESTROY is a strong word. ‘Tamper heavily with’ is probably more appropriate.)
Let me provide some context. I took a Literature degree between 2011 and 2014 – and pretty early on, I realised that I disagreed with basically everything my lecturers taught me about books – and more specifically, what constituted as a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ one.
Now, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion (of course), but it’s pretty intimidating when you feel as though you’re on one side of an argument, and literally everyone else is on the other. Where I loved (and still love) YA fiction, comedians’ biographies and the occasional classic, like Jane Eyre or Rebecca, my professors (and a lot of my student peers, too) valued Chaucer, Milton and Irvine Welsh.
The more time went by, the more I saw how my preferences were so very different from the others on my course. I did not think that The Great Gatsby is the ‘great British novel’. I did not jump on the Shakespeare bandwagon. I thought Middlemarch was boring beyond belief, and I totally did not get the hype over Carol Ann Duffy (I still don’t).
The more I disagreed and the less I enjoyed my required reading, the more I started to doubt myself as a student… and feel removed from books as a whole.
Did I really belong to the literary world, if I didn’t enjoy its most revered authors? Was I on the right track in studying books, if I didn’t like any of the books that I was studying? Was I missing something about these famous reads that everyone else could see?
I felt outside of the clique, and ultimately, my doubts pushed me further and further away from the hobby I used to love. I A), no longer enjoyed reading and B), felt a little ashamed of my taste in books (as ridiculous as that sounds). I thought that the genres I liked indicated that I didn’t belong in literary circles… that they were ‘frivolous’ by comparison.
I fell out of touch with reading, and forgot how to enjoy it.
My old passion became synonymous with self-doubt and worry, and I rarely read for pleasure (both while I was studying and in the years after).
But then a miracle happened… in the form of a 3-hour round commute. (A sentence that I never thought I’d write.)
Yep – that certainly doesn’t sound like a miracle, but it was. As you can imagine, staring out of a train window with nothing to do lost its lustre quite quickly, and as a means to entertain myself, I decided to pick up a book again. But hell if I was going to spend my commute reading George Eliot or Austen – I was going to read the books I wanted… even if they were ‘trashy’.
I reached for YA fiction again. Sci-fi. The biographies of badass funny people. Anything that appealed.
And slowly… my love for books returned.
As soon as I embraced my favourite genres and allowed myself to nosedive back in, my addiction to reading returned in full force – and all the years I’d accumulated of feeling bad about my preferences came crumbling down.
I realised some things that I should’ve known, all along:
- Firstly – life is too short to trawl through books you’re ‘supposed’ to read. Though you can’t avoid reading books you don’t like while you’re studying a Literature degree, you have total control over what you choose to read in your spare time. Make sure that you read what you want to, not what you’re ‘supposed’ to by others’ standards (like Kerouac or Steinbeck). Everybody’s taste is different. Don’t be ashamed of yours.
- Books don’t have a hierarchy. There are no books that are fundamentally ‘better’ than others. You are not a lesser reader if you prefer romance stories about elves in NYC than some classic bigwig. If you enjoy it, that’s all that matters. Go ahead and read it!
- If it invokes emotion, entertains you or expands your imagination, it’s good. Even if it’s that elf book (which, by the way, I just realised sounds a lot like the movie Elf. Which is an amazing movie – so I would definitely read the shit out of that).
- If anybody judges you for your taste in books, that’s on them, not you. Reading is reading. End of.
- Embrace what you love… in terms of books, but also your other hobbies and interests! Cosplaying isn’t just for teens. Knitting isn’t just for 80-year-olds. Baking isn’t just for women. I’ll stress again – do what you enjoy, and don’t let outdated predilections stop you. Enjoy your life.
At the end of the day, we all deserve to surround ourselves with things that make us happy.
So don’t let anyone else’s judgements – whether they come from a Literature department or a colleague or a stranger or an elf from Manhattan – stop you.
Quick afternote to people who’ve applied to study Literature at university…
Don’t let this article freak you out, please! I don’t regret studying English – I only regret what it did to my relationship with reading – and had I known the above before, I’m sure it would’ve been a hell of a lot more fun. I certainly would’ve had an easier time keeping the books I loved and the books I had to study in separate boxes! Go forward and embrace your university years and your course with an open mind.