One of my friends at work joined a book group recently, so she asks us to get the books for her and then she tells us about them. The first one was “pretty bleak”, which didn’t seem to get her off to a good start. Recently, she came into the library and announced “I’m 85% of the way through my book club book and I think it’s finally convinced me that it’s alright”. A glowing review.
Part of the problem, I think, is that she wouldn’t have chosen these books herself. Her suggestion for their future books is The Jungle Book, but she felt silly because “it’s not highbrow enough” – everything else has been Difficult in some way. While reading books you wouldn’t choose for yourself can be really great – I’ve been reading a lot of recommendations lately, and found some absolute gems – it can make it difficult to get into them, too. I’ve found that with my reading challenge – of the 50 categories on the list, I’ve managed to do 34 of them without trying too hard, but there are still 17 left to fill.
But I also think it’s the pressure of having to read. My degree was in French Studies, and no matter how cheerfully I’d spend all day reading, the minute I had to read something – even in English – I was stuck. Sometimes the material was just dull – I still resent the hours I spent reading Voltaire’s letters, struggling through them – but often there was just a barrier of pressure. One of my lecturers suggested that, when we had to read a novel for class, we should take it on the metro, or read it in the bath, to take the pressure off. It seemed to have escaped her how few tiny Parisian apartments have baths, but the thought was there, and it turned out to be excellent advice. I found that the few novels she set us were much each to get along with when I wasn’t sitting at a desk forcing myself to read them. One of the novels we had to read was Quartet, by Jean Rhys – a short book, in English, which I really enjoyed when I went back and read it again after graduating. But at the time, it was like wading through mud.
I know I’m not alone in this, but I am also very aware of the people who study literature – in whatever way – and find a love for what they study. Who sit down and consume a novel or two in a day so that they can analyse them for their work. I’m not like that. But why not? Why is it so difficult to read something just because you have to?
Some people are just naturally slow readers – my dad, for example, took two years to read Interview With The Vampire, even though he liked it. I read faster than some of my friends, and much slower than others. And if I try to read faster, I find that I miss things anyway. But that’s more about reading in general than reading under pressure.
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of time. I chose modules for my degree that featured as little literature as possible – it was my weakest point, and I didn’t enjoy it, so I chose history and art classes where I could, instead – but one of my flatmates would find herself being assigned three or four novels a week. In French. That’s reading a book a day, really, if you also want to keep on top of your other work (especially if, like me, you’d happily spend most of a day on a single piece of translation homework), and go to all your lectures. Realistically, it would be more like reading as much of each one as possible, and hoping the lecture didn’t go further into the book than they had. And that’s also true for book groups – reading a novel to a time schedule, trying to absorb enough of it to discuss it at the next gathering, on top of work and life and so on, can become a bit of a chore.
But more than that, I think it might just be a little rebellion. “I’m supposed to be reading this book, but it’s like homework so I’m not going to, I’ll just read this Buzzfeed article and scroll Twitter on my phone instead, because what’s going to happen?” The problem is when the book is homework – whether it’s for a book club, or a reading challenge, or on loan, or whatever other reason there might be that it needs to be read. Time and again, I’ve written myself a list of things to read, and failed abysmally, even though I want to read them (eg my summer reads, whoops) I always seem to find something else. And while that means I’ve read some other brilliant books – Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is a particular favourite from the summer – it also means that I miss out on others, and that makes me sad. I’ve just read this, about how to reduce your to-be-read pile, and there are some great suggestions – particularly having a couple of books on the go. A lot of people recoil in horror when I mention doing this, but I find that I don’t necessarily want to read the same thing in the bath as I do on the train, for example, so that can be quite good – my current bath book is a Harry Potter, and I’m reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter on my commute at the moment. But, again, that’s less about reading to a deadline.
How do you make yourself read things when you’re on a deadline? Why do you think it can be so difficult? Do you read in the bath, or bribe yourself, or slog away at it until something clicks?