As a child, I always had my face glued to a book. I learned how to navigate my elementary school without even raising my eyes from the pages that I absorbed. I would read at recess, I would read between classes, I would read in the car, and I would read under the covers when my parents thought I was asleep. I would tear through entire novels in mere days and entire series in weeks. I could not get enough of these stories. My backpack was always heavy with multiple books—in case I finished one, the next one needed to be ready.
I don’t remember everything that I read but there are a few titles that are near and dear to my heart. I was once sent to detention for reading The Boxcar Children under my desk during class. My mother had some old copies of early Nancy Drew novels, which I wasn’t allowed to fold the pages of—then I went on to read all 47 books that were available at the time. There was one book that I read three times in a row and had to pay late fees on because of how beautifully written it was—I don’t remember the title anymore, but it was about a teenager named Hannah who was sent to the countryside during the outbreak of the Spanish Influenza. My friend lent me the first book in Erin Hunter’s Warriors series, then the second, then the third, then the fourth, all within three weeks. The fifth book came out the week of my birthday, and she gifted it to me instead of getting it for herself. We read it together, hunched over the same book and only turning the page when we were both done. We both cried when our favorite character died. I got her the sixth book for her birthday, and we did the same thing again.
But, somewhere around the second book of the second Warriors spinoff series, I stopped. Not just with the series of talking cats, but with all of my reading. I’m not sure what happened. Perhaps it was that my best friend moved away and I didn’t have anyone to share reading with anymore. Maybe it was my parents’ constant nagging to “get outside and make some friends.” It could’ve been the move into adolescence, into high school, into a higher expectation of work. My excuse, when people asked why I wasn’t reading as much, was a snobby-sounding “I’ve read everything that I actually like and there’s nothing left.”
See, I say that I stopped reading, but the reality is my high school literature teacher was giving me plenty to read. And at first, I was excited to have to do reading for homework, but then I realized that Mr. Wilcox expected me to think. To analyze. To scrutinize. When I got upset about Dante’s Inferno placing people who committed suicide in the sixth ring of hell, I was challenged to prove why I was so upset. I wrote a five-page (single-spaced, 10-point-font) thought experiment to try to put into words why that section of the Inferno had made me so distraught. When I turned it in for extra credit (as my teacher encouraged me to), he got misty eyed while reading it. “Excellent work, Sydney,” I remember him saying. “You now understand what it means to critically analyze literature.”
He went on to be one of my favorite teachers, always pushing me to examine literature at a deeper level than just the words written. I found homosexual subtext in Anne Frank, I made a chronological chart of the events of Catch-22 (which is told non chronologically), I examined and criticized the difference between the censored and uncensored versions of The Grapes of Wrath. My favorite character in The Brothers Karamazov was Ivan, the analytical middle brother, and when a classmate called me “a bad person for liking a bad character,” I wrote an in-depth essay titled "Ivan Doesn’t Fit Into a Box," which talked about how characters that don’t fit into certain writing clichés or devices are often written off as poor writing or even a villain, but they’re really much closer to human than the stereotypical “lovable idiot” or “child prodigy” tropes.
When I came to college, I was continually challenged to read critically and analytically. Was Iago repressing his homosexuality in Othello? What unwritten psychological effects did foot binding have on the characters of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan? Was Frankenstein’s Mary Shelley infatuated with her father? These were all questions that I have been asked over the course of my college career. When I got a poor grade on an assignment and met with the professor, she informed me that it was obvious that I’d only read the text once and then had written my initial reactions. She informed me that I should try to read everything that’s assigned at least twice, if not three times, in order to gather as much information as possible.
So I never really stopped reading. That’s impossible when you’re an English major like me. But I haven’t read for pleasure in a long time, not like I used to when I was young. I don’t devour books by the day anymore, I like to sit with one and analyze the hidden meanings. In my freshman year of college, my friend loaned me the Divergent series, as the movies were coming out soon. I actually ended up hating them. I read every singe one to try to see what all the fuss was about, but I couldn’t see it. The series had disconnected themes that never resolved—the first one about discovering oneself and becoming confident, the second one a suspenseful investigation of corruption, and the third one examining what it means to be human. Why did Tris and Four fall in love? How was it that Four didn’t have psychological damage from his abuse? Why wasn’t genetic experimentation foreshadowed in any of the first two books? What were the “bad guy’s” motivations, other than to be an obstacle for Tris to overcome?
These were all questions that I’d learned to start asking of what I was reading, and found myself a little shocked when the book simply didn’t have the answers. Divergent was meant to be read like I read books when I was young—emotionally and with trust. Against my critical and cynical reading, it didn’t hold up. And that makes me kind of sad. Can I go back to reading emotionally? Can I go back to trusting what’s on the page instead of trying to see what wasn’t there? Could I ever read a book and just cry over a character’s death with raw emotion, instead of trying to analyze why the author made the decision for a character to be killed?
I loved reading like that—but I haven’t done it in years. And I think that I’m the better for it. I’ve learned to recognize and criticize heteronormativity, white-washing, mental illness stigmatization, forced gender roles, and culture erasure in literature and other entertainment media. I’m more conscious of what I’m reading and supporting now, and more thoughtful and critical about what I see. I may not be able to read for pleasure in the way that I used to, but I am a better person because of that.