Why Overworked College Students Need to Remember that Reading is Actually Fun
This isn’t what it looks like. This isn’t Just Another Blog Post giving you chic little tactics for how you can overcome the inevitable storm of finals-week stress. If you’re anything like me—a senior pursuing two degrees—you may indeed feel sometimes that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, figuratively speaking. Well, it’s happening, and we pay for it to happen. So get used to it. What I’m interested in is what comes after all stress subsides, and we’re left lying in our beds with implicit vows to never read another book. Because even while our academic hailstorms may leave us feeling exasperated with and estranged from literature, I believe that there are at least five good reasons to keep reading:
Entertainment at Its Best
Is there anything better than reading a book that really blows your hair back? A story that makes you forget you’re even turning pages? These are the kind of books that somehow end up taking priority over that essay you have to write for your 3000-level course in literary criticism. Personally, my ultimate literary vice is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The intricacies of his world and the depth of his characters are second to none. Every time I allow myself some time inside Martin’s Westeros, I leave our Earthly reality for a little while. Some people in our age of Netflix may argue that the HBO-adaptation of Martin’s fantasy, “Game of Thrones,” is more satisfying. But I say nay; where else is the mind allowed to wander like it will within the complexities and fascinations of a good book?
I once heard it said—to use the normative vernacular—that a girl shouldn’t kiss a boy if she goes to his house and discovers that there aren’t any books in his room. Why else do you all think I have a shelf full of them back at my parents’ house? But with all kidding aside, people see value in an individual that reads for recreation. Voracious readers tend to be kind and empathetic people. And seeing how this takes the multiform of a television stereotype, you know it’s true. (For any One Tree Hill fans out there, I’m thinking about Lucas; dude’s reading Atlas Shrugged and quoting Henry David Thoreau in season one while dating cheerleaders and making the high school basketball team.) More importantly though, this phenomenon exists outside of pop culture. I often go to the Caribou Coffee in my hometown to read, and I’ve been approached on two separate occasions by an Amway representative asking me if I’d like to make a little extra money. When you’re seen reading any work of literature, there is a certain no-nonsense go-getter image that you will project. (It’s beside the point that Amway is not my cup of tea.) But who doesn’t want to put the best image of themselves out in the world for people to see? Just don’t be cocky, as I was above… People might not like that.
Stories Bring Us Together
Literature can build communities. We exemplify that statement here in the Twin Cities, which is the biggest literary community between the coasts—perhaps with exception to Chicago. The Twin Cities maintains three of the nation’s most successful independent publishing houses: Graywolf Press, Coffeehouse Press, and Milkweed Editions. These publishers have been invaluable toward the production of Minnesota’s cultural gestalt. The Twin Cities Book Festival brings these three houses together, along with other independent presses and self-published authors. In a very real way, this is a community that would not exist without books.
But also, literature works at bringing us together in much more interpersonal ways. Reading the work of any given author is the closest one can get to seeing the world through another person’s eyes. This is one huge reason why we share books with the people we love, so that we may align our perspectives. I had some very intriguing conversations with my girlfriend after we both had read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. That Great American Novel helped us to better understand each other, and provided us with a constructive frame of reference for our own relationship. This is just one way that made-up stories and fictional characters can strengthen our bonds with others.
Becoming a Scholar of Life
When the writer Rick Moody visited our campus last fall, he told Brian Malloy’s fiction class (and I’m paraphrasing here) that he advises anyone who’s received a BFA in Creative Writing to take some time and discover what life is all about before moving on to an MFA. What Moody didn’t say is that a person who believes they’re done learning once they’ve graduated is doomed to fail. The world is always changing. In twenty years, the things we’ve learned in school may easily become outdated. Though the lessons that can be learned from the best works of literature transcend the mundane world of academia; these books expound the meaning of our human identities and help us get closer to realizing what it is to really be alive. For me, this book is David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest. There isn’t a single human artifact that has molded my perception of the world like Wallace’s door-stopper novel. This is knowledge I’ve gained from a friend that I’ll never get to meet, and it has truly made me feel like a more complete human-being.
One things that continues to amaze me about literature is how its message endures in spite of our ever-changing world. Although we’ve since left the Modern period of literature far behind, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is still capable of wowing readers with its unique treatment of time and the human experience. This book is at once a history lesson and a tragedy that encourages reflection in its readers. I think Rick Moody would agree that reading is one of the best paths toward discovery.
Creating a Better World
Sure, literature may just be some words on a page that can only be meaningful if we take time away from the real world to make it so. But make no mistake, the ideas we receive in literature are meaningful. Just like the ideas that have led to the construction of our cities, or those catalysts to our wars. Here in the Twin Cities, Milkweed Editions chooses the books that it will publish in any given year with a set criteria in mind: it has to be capable of changing the world. One of their authors is Deni Ellis Béchard, whose distinct works of fiction and nonfiction are as diverse as his upbringing and worldly experience. Béchard exemplifies Milkweed’s success in meeting this criteria in his third publication, Of Bonobos and Men. Detailing his personal travels through the Congo and his research concerning the evolution of rainforest conservation, Béchard’s novel is a beacon of light in our millennial world of waste and indifference.
It nearly goes without saying: Béchard’s efforts will all be for naught if no one reads his book. So maybe you should go out to the nearest community-oriented, local bookstore and buy a copy. Or not. At least take a look around, and if something catches your eye, give it a shot. Whatever you do, don’t get discouraged by the cruel trials of finals week at a liberal arts college. Because we read for more than just a letter grade. And if I missed anything, leave a comment below and let me know your own best reason to keep on reading.
Meet the blogger:
CONNOR RYSTEDT is a senior majoring in English and creative writing at Hamline University. He’s previously received his AFA in creative writing from Anoka-Ramsey Community College, where he’s had several publications in The Rapids Review and The Campus Eye. In October of 2014, he received the Norman Mailer Nonfiction Writing Award for two-year college students. When he’s not worrying about what to write, he likes to watch football and fight with his parents’ mini-labradoodle.