As an English Literature major, I always have a thinking cap on when reading any book. I can’t help it; I see all the literary and rhetorical devices and start to underline or highlight words, sentences, paragraphs, or passages that I think are vital to the story’s development. Sometimes, I make a mental note of how flat or round the characters are. Or I critique the author’s writing style. But not everyone is like that, and that is okay.
The irony here is that I wholeheartedly advocate for reading leisurely. The fact that I advocate for it may or may not shock you. I mean, it is not a significant Earthly concern, you know, fighting the stigma of NOT simultaneously reading and thinking critically. I understand how frustrating it can be to continually be mocked or lectured for wanting to read with no end goal.
Leisure Reading Is Okay
I think this stigma results from “hustle culture” and the need instilled in us by capitalism to continually be productive, the need to feel like we are accomplishing something. The expectation is that books are meant to expand our understanding of the world. They have to be rich with knowledge and explore the consequences of things or feelings such as sorrow, isolation, and trauma.
Even when novels address these concerns, we as readers are expected to take that extra step and critically analyze all the symbols, imagery, or themes present. We are expected to ask questions like
❖ What does Katniss symbolize? What does the Mockingjay represent? Is there a correlation between the two?
❖ Why do Katniss and Peeta present themselves as star-crossed lovers? How is this significant?
❖ As a series, how well does The Hunger Games accurately discuss and represent trauma and pain?
Although such questions are essential, asking such questions and actively looking for an answer is draining when you are reading leisurely. When we’re reading for pleasure, we do so to unwind and destress from our daily lives. How can that happen if we are studying every crevice of a book?
This expectation is exploitative at best. It prevents us from experiencing the world and genuinely engaging with the words on a page. You do not have to turn everything you do into a cash cow. You do not have to exploit your favorite books to make some coin. You certainly need not make some worldly connection to be an “enlightened” being.
We need to put the magic back into reading. As kids, we read for the sake of reading. We read it because we enjoyed it and it made us happy. We read to explore different worlds, travel back in time, or travel to the future. Sometimes, reading “gave us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.”–Mason Cooley Given what we are experiencing, some escapism will not hurt.
But if you want to analyze a book critically, that is okay too. It would be good, though, to create a list of books you want to study. By doing so, you can easily designate time for “leisure reading” and time for “critical reading.” Having that separation is vital; you don’t want to overwork yourself. Also, when you exploit the things you love, there is a high risk of you associating them with stress and anxiety. So the likelihood of you ever doing the things you love again decreases.
If that is the case, I can help you get started on both lists for some leisure reading.
The Fairest of Them All: A Tale of the Wicked Queen – Serena Valentino
❖ We all know Snow White’s story and her escape from her wicked stepmother. But do we understand why her mother was cruel in the first place? The wicked stepmother is a trope that was concocted to manipulate children into behaving well. It’s problematic because it further villainizes women and paints them as selfish and vain. Refreshingly, this novel challenges that trope and shows how loving stepmothers can be. It kind of acts like a prequel to Snow White’s great escape, as it details the queen’s life before and after becoming malevolent. It discusses some reasons why the queen began to envy Snow’s beauty simplistically.
Beloved – Toni Morrison
❖ Would you kill a loved one to free them of possible pain? Sethe attempts to do this when her owner catches up to her and tries to bring her children back to the farm. Sethe did not want her children to be enslaved, but her options were limited with a genuine threat on her doorstep. Though she only kills one of her children. This child then haunts them for the rest of their lives. The novel picks up when Denver (one of Sethe’s children) enters adulthood. During this time, she and Sethe finally decide to confront her dead sister’s ghost. The events to follow were nothing short of horrifying.