November 6, 2009

Where reading comes to die

Class expectations make reading for pleasure impossible.

Stop by my room and you’ll quickly see what a thoughtful, educated guy I am. An array of political and policy books line my bookshelves, none of them for class. Hard-covered and thick, they have boring covers and titles like After Prohibition, The Case Against Campaign Finance Reform, and A People’s History of the Supreme Court. I’m fair and balanced, too: Bad Samaritans, a South Korean economist’s indictment of free trade, sits happily next to Realizing Freedom, a libertarian tome that calls for less government at every turn.

Then, of course, there’s my fiction collection—sets of short stories or serious novels by critically acclaimed authors you probably haven’t heard of. (Meanwhile, my well-worn paperback of John Grisham’s The Rainmaker lurks in the corner, hidden from view.)

Visitors often remark on my prolific collection (“You brought all these books from home?”), and I smile coyly. The problem, which I don’t reveal to my impressed guests, is that I haven’t read many, if not most, of my books. Believe me, I want to read them. That, to answer my imaginary visitor’s question, is why I lug massive boxes to and from campus every year—it’s a ridiculous optimism that one day, someday, I’ll finally finish Charles Murray’s Real Education.

Of course, it never works out that way. Mainly because of school: I can’t do all the reading that I’m assigned to do, so how can I possibly justify doing reading that I don’t have to do—for pleasure? The idea of non-class reading is like some sort of mythical creature at the U of C: If, on the stunningly rare occasion, I do manage to delve into my not-for-class books, inevitably someone asks me, “What class is that for?”

Even worse than the oppressive reading loads here is the oppressive nature of the readings themselves. My political science class, for example, makes me parse sentences like this: “The communication structures of the public sphere are linked with the private life spheres in a way that gives the civil-social periphery, in contrast to the political center, the advantage of greater sensitivity in detecting and identifying new problem situations.” When this is the type of reading you’re used to, it’s easy to forget when reading was fun—the good old days of Goosebumps and Animorphs and Stephen King.

It’s not just during the school year, though: Summer, as I recently discovered, is no different. This summer I lugged two huge bags of books—I mean it: I never learn my lesson—with me as I drove to Washington, D.C. My roommate rolled his eyes, but I swore up and down that this time, really, was when I was going to catch up on my reading. Well, no one tells you just how exhausting a 9-to-5 job is, even when your “work” consists of surfing the Internet and occasionally switching feverishly to a blank Excel document when your boss passes by. And no one tells you how when you get home after those harrowing days of playing Text Twist, all you want to do is “cook” your frozen pizza dinner and watch Jeopardy and Baseball Tonight. No one tells you that the very last thing you want to do is read Real Education. I ended up shipping two boxes of books home, not one of them fully read.

So what is there to be done? Am I simply my own worst enemy, choosing books that make me feel smart but that I don’t want to read? Maybe. But then there are books that I really do want to get through—the novel a friend recommended and lent me, which now sits on my bookshelf, missing its owner, dog-eared on page 12.

Sometimes I think about what an education has cost me. In fits of self-pity I blame the U of C. All my reading for class has taken over reading for myself. But I know the truth: I made my own decisions, and it was me who spent countless nights playing ping-pong or talking with friends about nothing or doing nothing on the Internet. It’s my fault. And that’s the worst part of all.

— Matt Barnum is a fourth-year in the College majoring in psychology. He is a member of the Maroon Editorial Board.