Perhaps one of the most common questions I get asked as an English grad student is, “So, do you still like to read? For fun?”
When I tell people that yes, I promise that studying books and words has not soured them at all for me, they’re usually a bit surprised.
I remember a common complaint from high school students I used to work with was that analyzing books “ruined” them.
This always saddened me to hear, not because I think the absorptive, entertaining power of books needs to be preserved no matter what (I don’t think that literature is only entertainment because art needs to be provocative, troubling, unsettling, etc; if you care at all about books, you’e heard this argument before, so I’m not going to rehash it), but because I think reading critically can be fun in the same way that, say, taking a run can be fun or cooking an elaborate meal can be fun.
There are parts that are frustrating and maddening. It can feel like all hope is lost when cramps start to slice through or when all of the rice in the pot bubbles over.
The first response to immense running discomfort is, of course, to double over and heave great, large gasping breaths to regain a steady heart beat and collapse on a couch. When a recipe goes awry, the impulse may be to throw it all in the garbage, pop in a frozen meal, and think, “Well, calories are calories.”
When people read critically and face a road block, not identifying anything beyond the literal or hitting a road bump in finding evidence for a particular argument, their response might be similar to the runner who has quit or the failed chef. Yet sitting often makes the running feel worse (the cramps can heighten, the dehydration can settle in and manifest) and throwing away a full meal (no matter how gross it may seem) turns into a pretty big waste. Cramps are typically alleviated by changing position, jogging with arms angled behind the head, and most botched recipes can be resurrected (haven’t you tried just pouring hot sauce on everything?).
Similarly (and I know, I know, too many metaphors here), I think most challenging reading can yield productive results. It just might require looking at a text from a different angle, taking a new passage, trying to imagine how someone else might read it, or how it might be framed within a certain critical or philosophical tradition. This is a sophisticated thing to do, but that frame of mind is, I think, what can make critical reading really fun and consistently engaging.
I wish I had concrete tips for how to do this exactly. It would make me a better teacher and probably a more interesting person if I did. But I think that learning how to think through the eyes of others is a skill that must be personally understood and that must be discovered through individual inquiry. I wish I could tell you to make things easier for you, but the process of learning how to read for yourself, of learning how to ask questions of yourself through the perspectives of others is, I think, different for everyone. Knowing how to ask questions or to imagine yourself in the place of someone else works differently for each person.
This is a cop-out answer. I know. But being able to see reading in conversation, rather than an isolated vacuum, is really what makes it fun for me.
Of course, I think it is important to shift out of the constant re-positioning and re-thinking that comes with reading critically. Reading passively and for entertainment is still important to maintain and sustain if only because being entertained and finding ways to experience leisure is an important and special pleasure in life (if you’ve got the privilege to find time to be entertained and to enjoy stories for the sake of enjoying stories. I know this truly is a privilege).
I can appreciate something like, say, The Hunger Games, much more when I’ve decided that I’ll read The Hunger Games passively. I could have never read the series in a matter of days if I had my analysis hat on; I’d have stopped at lines to read and re-read, to take notes and to put those notes in the context of other readings I’d done.
Most importantly, I read The Hunger Games passively because I wanted to read those books for the ride, the absorption, that engrossing “books-can-take-you-places” feeling upon language arts classroom posters. I was in for the absorption factor. And I had a great time.
This approach occasionally backfires. To use another popular YA example, I tried reading Twilight in this way, interested in the hype (is Twilight actually still a thing?). However, the moment I tried to get lost in the story, the analysis hat kept creeping in, and it didn’t help that the protagonist is bizarrely weak and simple-minded. In other words, I couldn’t get absorbed in the novel because the characters were so artificial; their strings were showing and I couldn’t ignore the puppet show with my attention that I knew was happening. So, that was a failure.
For the most part, though, I find that if I can put myself in the right frame of mind, the “magic” of reading experiences is not lost for me. The magic just looks a little different and it takes on other forms.
Maybe I should turn that slogan into a poster, and it would absolutely have to feature giggling children atop a magic carpet riding over a rainbow. This is the only way to portray reading’s joys, after all.