As 2017 comes to an end, I’ve been reflecting on the past year, and I’ve realized that I finished nearly 30 books. My reading selection for 2017 ranged from classic works, like Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” to elaborate postmodern comics, like “Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid on Earth” by Chris Ware. While 30 books may seem like a lot, I know I could’ve done better.
I’m more astonished by the stack of bookmarked and dog-eared books that piled up in my bedroom. There are so many books I started but never got around to finishing this year. It’s hard to keep track of how many times I renewed library books with the hope of getting some extra time to read them, only to end up returning them unfinished weeks later.
This frustrates me, especially when I think about how freely I used to read. Back in high school, one of my English teachers often postponed in-class activities to allow us to read silently for the whole period.
We would sit in the classroom quietly, with nothing but the hum of the air conditioner and the shuffling sound of turning pages.
Even before that, my elementary school teachers would make time for D.E.A.R., which stood for “drop everything and read.” In retrospect, I’m a little shocked at the urgency of the phrase — it carries the notion that reading can be more important than doing anything else.
Today, no one decides which portion of my day will be dedicated to worry-free reading time. Instead, I have to dictate this myself, and it’s not easy. I know it’s still possible to set aside time to read. I just feel that I don’t have permission.
I love books and I will always advocate for the importance of reading. But I have to admit, putting my demands aside in favor of reading seems absurd sometimes. The act of turning my back on my to-do list to read a book instead can feel antithetical to the concept of productivity. And I am very aware of this.
When I actually make the decision to sit down and read, I have to silence the nagging voice in my head that says I should be working on something else: getting ahead on homework, sorting through a sea of emails, getting myself ready for the next day.
Even sleep competes for my reading time. At the end of a hectic day, I may try to squeeze in a few minutes of reading before bed, but I find myself falling asleep soon after — not because I’m uninterested, but because I’m exhausted.
Giving myself ample time to read at a different time of day helps me avoid this fatigue. When I make reading a priority rather than an afterthought, it has the potential to bring about needed relaxation. Lately I’ve been trying to take advantage of this.
After finally handing in a complicated group project last semester, I took out a couple of books from the library. One of them was “Hungry Heart,” a memoir by journalist and novelist Jennifer Weiner.
When I started reading it, I had to remind myself to focus on the book and stop worrying about the details of my group project and the grade my teammates and I would get.
But as my eyes traveled across page, I grew calmer without even trying. I felt my heart rate mellow out, and all the tension I was feeling started to fade as I continued reading. Hours passed, and I did not chase after them.
I put my stress aside as I entered Weiner’s story — memories of creative writing classes at Princeton and working for The Philadelphia Inquirer — but I wouldn’t call it an escape.
While my own anxieties were eclipsed by Weiner’s narrative, I was grappling with her own moments of vulnerability and pain as she recalled being made fun of as a child, dealing with financial insecurity in college and experiencing heartbreak.
Submitting myself to another person’s story is a special task, but it’s just as worthy as all the other duties I perform on a daily basis. This act of empathy requires a type of emotional engagement with myself and others that gets neglected when life gets busy.
As I grow older, I want to continue to cherish the idea that reading deserves the same immediacy and attention it used to receive in my childhood.
I can probably anticipate another whirlwind of challenges and opportunities in 2018. But I also look forward to catching up on new releases I never got around to this year, like “Don’t Call Us Dead” by Danez Smith and “Calling a Wolf a Wolf” by Kaveh Akbar.
Even in the most chaotic and stressful moments, I will grant myself permission to read without worry in the new year.
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