Reading is, at its core, a leisure activity. We gain knowledge, joy, catharsis and empathy from reading. And yet when reading, a solitary pursuit, becomes interactive—when we talk about it with one another—it is suddenly fraught with anxiety and guilt. Everyone is in the same boat, minus the perhaps imaginary spectre of a few maddeningly well-read people. But if we’re all together in our anxiety, why do we torment ourselves and one another? Guilt is rarely a productive emotion; it is more immobilizing than motivating.
What do you mean “we,” paleface? Maybe you should just go ahead and straight-up read Fifty Shades of Grey if you want to, rather than outsource your BDSM needs to the collective opinion of your book club. I mean, one of us must be doing this reading thing all wrong, because I’m not well-read by any cultural sophisticate’s standard, yet I get nothing but pure, unmitigated joy from reading and talking about what I’ve read. Hearing others talk about books I haven’t read yet doesn’t give me an inferiority complex, it only rouses my ravenous appetite:
“Oh, my greed! There is no selflessness in my soul but only an all-coveting self that would like to appropriate many individuals as so many additional pairs and eyes and hands – a self that would like to bring back the whole past, too, and that will not lose anything that it could possibly possess. Oh, my greed is a flame! Oh, that I might be reborn in a hundred beings!” – Whoever does not know this sigh from firsthand experience does not know the passion of the search for knowledge.
Here’s a slightly amusing anecdote about the intersection of reading, character and status anxiety, though. I used to read a lot of comics when I was a kid. Not comic books, which I was never really into, just book-length compilations of newspaper comic strips, which my mom would get me when we went to the store. Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible, Wizard of Id, stuff like that. My dad hated seeing me with those. Thought they were going to rot my brain. If he happened to be in a crabby mood, and if I happened to leave too many of them lying around throughout the house, he would occasionally gather up any he saw and throw them out in the trash. I’d go fish them out later when his attention was elsewhere, grumbling over the injustice of it all as I hid them more carefully in my room.
He also used to give me extra homework, sometimes during the summer. I guess he was trying to instill a strong work ethic in me as well as stave off the brain-rotting I was inflicting on myself. A few times, he assigned me the task of finding fifty new vocabulary words from my reading to look up and define.
You can guess where this is going, right? Yes, I took great subversive delight in finding the bulk of those words from those very comics which I’d rescued from the garbage. To this day, I remember that I learned the word “vindictive” from a Broom Hilda strip.