September 11, 2023

SWASING | The Novelty of Reading for Pleasure

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When I’m asked about my hobbies, I often respond that I enjoy reading (which is true, for the record). Then when the inevitable question, “What’s the last good book you read?” follows, my mind goes blank; the titles of every book I’ve ever read disappear into thin air. It disappoints me that the last time I had time to read a good book was so long ago that I can’t even remember what book it was. My pile of “to be read” books grows larger by the day, while my “finished reading” list remains stagnant. 

Reading for pleasure while in college is a topic that has been discussed again, and again and again by Sun columnists. As students pursuing a vast array of academically intense interests, many of us find that we spend so much time on reading assignments and other mentally taxing work that by the time we get a chance to relax, reading for fun sounds like a hill we can’t even begin to climb. Instead, we opt for a mind-numbing Netflix show that we can watch passively while we disengage our brains and scroll through social media.

The advice given to college students who struggle to find time to read for pleasure is often some version of the same worn-out notion: It takes discipline. I think this misses the mark. Invoking discipline as a way to get back into a habit turns it into a chore. That just adds to the mental fatigue that keeps students from reading for fun in the first place, which is the exact opposite of its intended purpose. Reading for pleasure is supposed to be pleasurable! There has to be a better way to make reading feel enjoyable and rewarding without having to fight against or plead with yourself to even crack open a book. 

Lucky for you, dear reader, there is a better way. It starts with professors. Based on experience, in any given week of a typical liberal arts class, professors can assign 50 pages or more of dense academic reading for students to sift through. Most students, if not all, will not come away from these readings with any substantial gain. Why? Because when you multiply 50 pages of dense academic reading times four or five classes, students defer to time-saving reading strategies. That means instead of devoting time to really understanding (or dare I say, even enjoying) the material, students will skim the passages searching for key takeaways, if they even bother to attempt the readings at all. Instead, professors should be more intentional about the reading they assign. Specifically, they should assign more novels. This would not only encourage students to truly engage with the readings, but also to allow students the opportunity to actually enjoy them. 

Last year I took a class called ANTHR 2310: The Natural History of Chimpanzees and the Origins of Politics. An interesting course title, I know. The class in itself could be the topic of an entire opinion piece, and maybe it will someday. But for now, I want to focus on one very specific takeaway from the class. Professor Arcadi, a well-known and respected scholar and researcher, didn’t allow himself to fall victim to the fallacy that dense academic journals are the best or only way to learn a subject. Instead, he assigned Jane Goodall’s novel In the Shadow of Man, an autobiographical account of Goodall’s time spent in the field researching wild chimpanzees. It. Was. Life changing. I learned so much about chimpanzees, the process of conducting fieldwork and an amazing female scientist’s life. 

More importantly, I didn’t skim. Unlike an academic paper, it was easier to dive into and enjoy the process of reading a novel. There was an easy to follow narrative that grabbed my attention and made the information clear and memorable. I spent more time thinking critically about the text, rather than wasting most of my time just trying to figure out what point the author was attempting to make. Rather than loosely retaining information from dozens of different sources, I was able to closely study one in-depth account. Not only did I enjoy it, but I felt productive because it was reading for a class. I was actively enjoying my homework.

This is, of course, not to say that there is no merit to learning to read academic writing. I will be the first to admit that in my time at Cornell, I have deeply improved my ability to wade through the oceans of the overly detailed information and technical language used in academia. It’s an important skill that I am proud to have developed, but one I would prefer to use significantly less. Regular reading — real reading, not skimming — is an important skill in its own right; one that we don’t get enough time to develop while in college; one that professors should encourage with their reading assignments just as much, if not more, than the art of skimming and sifting. 

Maybe reading a novel assigned for class can’t truly count as “reading for pleasure,” but it certainly is a step in the right direction of enjoying reading. I implore more professors to follow in Professor Arcadi’s footsteps and bring some joy back to the simple act of reading. 

Halle Swasing is a fourth year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her fortnightly column Goes Without Swasing explores student life as well as broader social issues. She can be reached at [email protected]

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