Death of the Reader

Of all the unlikely things to do during midterms, between catching up on reading and stress-filled cramming, I went to a bookstore.

Over the weekend, I amassed several new paperbacks and a couple of hardcovers, all now resting snugly on my bookshelf and tempting me to spend time with them. I had forgotten how much I missed the atmosphere of a bookstore after being cooped for days in smelly Cabot or on the monastic fifth floor of Lamont. I love bookstores. Millions of tales at my disposal; I open one of them a crack and immediately smell that distinct scent of freshly-printed, newly published words.

Bookstores are a luxury, really, that everyone has the right and the ability to enjoy. Browsing the aisles, scanning the myriad titles, running admiring fingers over the colorful glossy covers that conceal treasures of literature and poetry and Romance for Dummies, turning the pages of a crisp New Yorker and lounging in the cafe with a latte and a brand-new copy of The Secret History—these are the essences of a luxury that most of us (sadly, unfortunately, tragically) never take advantage of. There’s something infinitely tempting and tantalizing about a new book—turning the pages in greedy anticipation of the next development, the latest twist. But old books, with their well-known passages and descriptions etched into fond memory, also provide needed respite.

Bear with this daydream for a moment: Instead of taking classes, I would be poring through well-thumbed novels acquired steadily through the years—even children’s books, although I’ve always despised that term which seems to trivialize all those well-loved, dog-eared copies of novels I’ve grown up with and come back to. Kay Thompson’s <Eloise, classic Newbery Award-winners like The Phantom Tollbooth—or, if you’re in the mood for a more titillating experience, Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge. The Annotated Lolita. And so on.

Once the daydream vanishes, however, reality welcomes me with the semester’s required texts that would pay for about fifty books I’d actually read voluntarily. “Reality,” of course, being the blatantly overpriced, overweight, overwhelming stacks of textbooks the Coop and the Science Center genially offer us every semester and which we tote home, gasping as we lug those slick white and red bags back to our rooms, where they will sit on our bookshelves—and, with luck, be read in the next few days before the midterms arrive.

If this is reality, give me my other books! Call me a sucker for escapist fiction, if you will. I take refuge in reading; I’m Matilda; I’m the baby who loves a bunch of authors. I eat a leisurely meal while leafing through Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, and my blockmates sigh in envy, perpetually mourning the death of pleasure reading in college and wistfully nostalgic about the good old days when reading for fun wasn’t something fueled by the Improbability Drive of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Reading for fun—imagine that!

During the semester we only read “things we need to read”, like sourcebooks the size of New York City telephone directories, or “things we need to succeed in life,” like Bloomberg financial reports and Kaplan’s Five Practice MCATs. And it’s not like vacations free our schedules for pleasure reading either. When not being bamboozled by recruiting and frantically e-mailing cover letters to Prestigious Summer Job Guru at High-Powered Institution, we’re finally catching up on the sleep we missed while trying to finish the assigned reading that cost enough to squeeze us dry. As your average Harvard overachiever, I’ve fallen into my share of these traps, and only recently have I rediscovered the ineffable satisfaction of pleasure reading.

Which is not to say that everybody should immerse their busy little heads in stacks of fluffy novels when they have homework, fellowship applications, job applications and medical school applications (i.e. more important things). Heck, for all my championing of pleasure reading, even I’m not planning to devote my life to that: Not only would it be ridiculous, it’s also useless in the practical sense. Who would pay me a six-figure salary to let me work my way with relish through piles of fiction? Isn’t the purpose of my time at Harvard to obtain a profession that’ll let me retire at 50 and sunbathe on my yacht with a drink in one hand and a book in the other?

But in all seriousness, take a break from papers and problem sets and frenzied job-hunting once in a while—even while you’re studying for a midterm. Go to the nearest bookseller and spend an hour there. Pick up a Calvin and Hobbes anthology (I recommend the Tenth Anniversary Collection) and tell me what you think.

Tiffany I. Hsieh ’04, a Crimson associate arts chair, is a biochemical sciences concentrator in Quincy House.