December 3, 2015

ALUR | Pick A Book, Any Book!

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There’s nothing that compares to the sensation of opening a beautiful novel, of occupying an alternate world for 240 pages, of feeling depressingly connected to people who don’t even exist, of spending entire nights reading because you can’t bear to leave your characters in the night. This week, fellow columnist and former editor, Sean Doolittle ’16 wrote about the limited scope of the Arts section, citing music as our go-to topic. As this is my final column of the semester, I wanted nothing more than to speak about something else, to reflect my personal love of literature, and re-assert Sean’s opinion that art, in all forms, conventional or not, easy or demanding, should be appreciated. After an exhausting and mentally tasking day, most people just want to de-stress. This is where shitty TV comes in — it’s engaging enough to keep you watching, but it kind of feels like eating a bag of Doritos: simultaneously satisfying and sickening. I have spent too many nights doing just that, and I’d like to flesh out why I think we should resist the urge and instead approach literature as a routine source of relaxation. It’s worth the challenge.

Every semester, I come to school with a pile of novels, some old, some new. I’ve had Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle on my shelf for at least two semesters and Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood for almost three years. On New Year’s, I make the resolution to read more and make time for the novels that I already own. I pledge to write as I read, to analyze craft and construct stories like my literary idols. Every year, I fail to do these things. I might start with a novel, giving it a week of undivided attention, but I quickly revert into the shamefully easy and relaxing option of putting on an episode of Gossip Girl or The Office. I allow myself to fall asleep to Blair and Serena arguing on the steps of the Met or Jim pranking Dwight with Jello-ed office supplies.

This semester, I made the same goal, but I sought to make the process of reading easier. I banned electronic screens before bedtime, leaving my computer on my desk, far enough away that lazy, sleepy me wouldn’t feel compelled to pick it up. I found myself a desk lamp, placed it on my nightstand, and ensured that if I wanted to read, I would be able to do so without having to get up to shut off the light. I essentially made my space lazy-friendly, knowing that most of my reading roadblocks had to do with my severe lethargy, and if I were to account for this, I might actually be able to accomplish my goal. And I did, at least for some time.

I started with short story collections, leaving them right by my bed, and assigning a story a night. Unlike novels, short story collections can be picked up after long periods of time, and each story feels conclusive and cathartic. I explored Miranda July’s No one belongs here more than you, a collection embedded with humor and precision. July’s stories are more often than not concise, so I’d feel all the more satisfied after being able to read two stories in one night. I later bought David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, a series of stories that relate to one another but can still be read independently. These collections eased my mind while simultaneously engaging it. They allowed me to get better sleep than I have in years and feel less shitty about my lack of literacy. While this routine worked for a few weeks, I found a way to be lazy again. I knew that I could stop reading any of these collections and pick them up months later, so there was no pressure to finish any of them. Unlike with a novel, I wasn’t as invested in the characters, as they left every ten pages. I became disconnected from the worlds within each story. So, I went back to TV, this time re-watching 30 Rock for the fifth time.

Over Thanksgiving break, I had the privilege of feeling bored. At home, I found myself struggling to find things to do. I didn’t want to watch the crappy TV shows that I usually fell asleep to at school, as when I actually had the brain capacity to pay attention to them, I found them as bland as unbuttered toast. I also didn’t want to re-watch my favorite shows, which had recently become another go-to excursion before bedtime. I decided to finish reading a book for class, one that I knew we weren’t going to discuss anymore, but one that I had, bookmarked in the middle, still sitting in my backpack. While I can’t say I enjoyed the book, as the apocalyptic, linguistically alienating world in the novel was confusing to me from page one to page 360, I read the entire thing. And I enjoyed the process tremendously. I sat on the couch, puppy in my lap, reading for hours on end. I was incredibly surprised at how even a book that I vehemently disliked brought me in and compelled me enough to keep going.

I’m not advising that you read books that don’t intrigue you. From my experience, the books I’ve stuck with were the ones that had plots and structures that drew me in from the start, and the ones that I struggled to relate to were the first to get thrown off the bus. That said, this whole endeavor of turning reading into my go-to hobby, made me realize that I actually do love to read. I had lost that, having scrutinized too many novels for class over the years, associating literature with academic stress and mental exhaustion. Literature can be enjoyed, and it is worth the time and extra effort. Put a book — short or long, old or new — on your nightstand and actually read it. Seriously.

Anita Alur is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at aa567@cornell.edu.

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