Returning To My First Love

“Once you learn to read, you’ll be forever free”

Frederick Douglass

The idea that literacy is a type of freedom might seem clichéd or even a bit earnest and naïve. Still, it’s an idea that continues to resonate with me.

Mine is perhaps a typical story. As a kid, I had an almost insatiable appetite for books. Being a poor, chubby, black girl with glasses, I knew I wasn’t what others called beautiful and most didn’t expect me to be smart either. But in books I could escape into a world of beauty, love, fantasy, and adventure where I could imagine myself as a brilliant heroine who saved the day.

I spent a whole lot of time in libraries and I read everything I could get my hands on. I moved from children’s books pretty quickly, devouring everything from Harlequin romances, to V.C. Andrews’s novels, to high fantasy series, to classics of African American literature.  I always had a book in my hand—on the school bus, at lunch, even at the dinner table—and my mama really did not play that. But I think she realized that books were a lifeline for me and she let some things slide.

In time, my love of reading became a desire to teach and write. I wrote (bad) poetry, spunky short stories, and even a novel or two.  By the time I was in high school I wanted to spend my life talking about literature, language, and grand ideas. I got a couple of degrees in English and became a professor.

And then I stopped reading.

Okay, so I didn’t exactly stop reading. I read signs, recipes, memos, e-mails, and text messages. I read (and write) blog posts, tweets, and Facebook status updates.  I read student essays and exams, and articles about Toni Morrison. What I don’t do is read for pleasure.

Yes, I confess: I am an English professor who does not read for fun.

Oh, boo hoo. You are gainfully employed and you don’t get to read for fun? Get the @#$% outta here.

That’s my inner voice. She’s pretty crunk, clearly, and she does not suffer fools lightly or approve of complaining and survivor’s guilt.

But, real talk, between my Saturn Return, then work and life and all that goes along with it, I’ve been feeling like I’m running on empty. Self-care has been a struggle for me, something I think about and write about a lot. But this time felt different. Without achieving some sort of work-life balance I was not going to bend, I was going to break. I needed something different to restore me.

It couldn’t be the things that I’ve been doing. Not cooking, watching ratchet reality TV, or sleeping late. I had to return to the source and the site of so many of my best memories. It had to be reading.

I started reading at night before bed and I even got myself a Kindle.  Let me tell you, though, reading was really, really difficult. Try as I might, I could not quiet my mind. I would read a paragraph and then it would go something like this:

Did I respond to such and such’s email? When is the 18th? I should just go on ahead and pay that Sallie Mae bill. They don’t just want money, they want my first born. If I have the time to read before bed I should probably just grade those papers. Damn, I’m tired…

And on and on.

It was hard to read more than a sentence or two without being interrupted by my incessant multitasking brain. At some point it was actually painful to continue to be present in the moment and allow myself to let go and be free.

I am in the process of reprogramming my mind and my body, giving myself permission to indulge my own desires without feeling guilty. It’s a process, but I’m slowly returning to my first love.

Right now I’m reading, yes reading, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and it’s awesome. And I feel just a little closer to being free.

Fam, have you experienced this sort of struggle with being present in your own life? Share your experiences in the comments.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some classic R&B.

A tarnished ring on a tarnished chaaaaaaaain

Avant & Keke Wyatt, for the youngins

 

crunkadelic

9 thoughts on “Returning To My First Love

  1. The “Magicians” has been on my coffee table, unopened for a year. I know exactly what you mean. Having a Kindle has helped though. Feels easier to get non-grad school reading in on the subways and airplanes.

  2. I felt like this for years. Then a couple of spring breaks ago I allowed myself not to work but read for pleasure. I decided that I wouldn’t take myself for granted anymore. The iPad helps but I will carry a book in my purse, too. Now that I have a thirty-minute commute, I also enjoy books on CD.

  3. Learned to read when I was about 3 years old. My sister taught me what was going on in her classes so I did her homework for her. (She is 8 years older.) For decades I was unable to sit quietly and not read. At some point I became so involved in making money I nearly dropped reading out of my life but when I was hospitalized briefly I started reading again and I do not go to sleep without reading, nor do I eat a meal without a book in one hand. Let the rest of the world communicate with their smart phone. I will devour my dumb books.

  4. I love this post so much – largely because I feel exactly the same way – except I’m a LIBRARIAN who doesn’t read for fun! :) I did check out some ebooks for my iPad the other day and did read one of them…on a plane on my way to a conference.

    The work-life balance issue is hard and I must say, I love the idea of prioritizing reading! Thank you!

  5. Yes yes yes! I stopped being able to read anything but young adult lit and murder mysteries when I was writing my dissertation, and have hardly read anything for pleasure since I’ve been working full time. I find I can listen to audio books, and reading is a little more successful on a tablet than with a real book for some reason, but it’s just like you say: I can’t keep my head focused. I need to make the effort to build it back in. Just as soon as I’m caught up on my blogs and I’ve done all my grading and done some writing… sigh

  6. I hear you! And as Saturn has just removed its foot from behind for the last three years, I’m feeling you there too. As for reading, you hit it on the head, I can’t quiet my thoughts long enough to do it for pleasure, and as a professor that feels quite pathetic. But after having a 3 1/2 hour (one way) per week commute to LA to teach last semester, audio books was my new best friend. Other than that, I’m afraid comic books is about the most I can do before parenthood comes a callin.’

  7. Reading this post leads me to make a confession of my own about reading: Even though I’m a grad student and I’m not “supposed” to be reading for pleasure…I never stopped.

    There is a part of me that thinks that maybe that’s why I’m still here, but I refuse to give up my one true escape. My first year of grad school was so grueling that I may have put down the “fun books” for a short while so that I could get used to being a student again, but then I realized books were my only guaranteed break. That feeling was reinforced one day when I was listening to a book review on NPR. At the end, what the commentator said basically amounted to “Read what you want and don’t apologize for enjoying it!” I wish I could find the link for that broadcast, but it’s been so long since I heard it. Still, I never forgot it.

    I still spend most of my time grading papers, reading articles, doing my own writing, but I don’t begrudge myself the chance to get lost in a good book on a semi-regular basis. 30+ years and my relationship with reading is still going strong.

  8. Believe it or not, I returned to my love of reading fiction during the middle of my time on the tenure track when I was still trying to figure out what my monograph was about. I got the reminder of how far I had fallen while I was reading Tana French’s In the Woods. The joy of clearing my head of the drama of life and work, in a way that watching TV or hanging out did not, was exhilarating and something that I wanted to experience on a regular basis. I decided to make time for it.

    I wasn’t consistent but I generally managed to read 15-20 novels a year (mostly during summer and winter break but I would still sneak in 2-3 novels each term, depending on what was available at my public library). To stay on top of the books I wanted to read, I created a list and would add to it as I listened to NPR reviews or read the Sunday Book section of the NYT. I would also queue them up on my public library account page. Reading and checking books off felt like a great sense of accomplishment. I also discovered that reading fiction helped me to think more about the mechanics and joys of writing.

    Now, 6 months into tenure and with an increase in my service commitments, I still *make* time to read, just like I make time to teach, write, workout, and hangout. I use Goodreads to keep track of what I want to read and what I have read. I agree with other commenters who noted that having an e-reader or tablet can help while you are on the go but they are not required.

    So, if you have lost your love of reading fiction, don’t despair because you can find it again. When things get crazy and you can’t figure out what you are supposed to be doing with your thesis, dissertation, article, review, or book, sometimes it helps to stop fighting, take a break with a novel, and then you can come back at the project swinging. Well at least that has been my experience.

    Happy reading.

  9. I still read for pleasure – a lot. I find my reading is much more scattered, and less focused, though, and I have trouble turning off the voice that keeps telling me to work on something else. I’m finding willful suspension of disbelief much harder than it used to be. I think it’s a combination of experience – I can spot the plot from a mile away – and a mental pattern of multitasking. Some of my most relaxing experiences with words, now, are on my run when I’m listening to The Moth or Radiolab. I love narratives, and find I can get drawn into them so that I get a little break from my pushing – and my run cannot in any way be construed as a time when I can multitask for work.

    But I’d love some suggestions of books that have given you some serious willful suspension of disbelief!

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