The Loss of Pleasure Reading

Sometimes I feel out of place on the train with a book in my hands. With smartphones flanking me on either side and an upmarket tablet across the aisle, I hold a paperback novel with the color and ungainly thickness of challah bread. The fact that I would bring anything along that demands not only full attention but also both my hands seems unnecessarily antiquated. Soon enough, with the imminence of Google Glass, it may soon be excessive that entertainment should occupy any hands at all.

In its 2007 report, “To Read or Not To Read,” the National Endowment for the Arts revealed that 23 percent of Americans had not read a single book during the past year. But that is all of America. If there were one place for pleasure reading to thrive and proliferate, it would be a place like Harvard College. Nevertheless, even here an active habit of reading seems to have become an idiosyncratic quirk like badminton rather than a staple of a well-rounded life. It is now more distinctive a character trait to claim that you read novels than to say that you watch movies.

Everyone watches movies. But for some reason, not everyone reads.

After all, Harvard students do not have time to read. This explanation is familiar to anyone who has experienced the hurricane of a Harvard semester.  But ultimately, when anyone says, “I do not have time for X,” what they truly mean is, “I do not value X enough to allocate time for it.” People do have the free time to keep up with television shows, surf Facebook, and hang out with other friends. How to divide that time becomes a question of priorities rather than capability.

And maybe we are correct not to set aside time for reading. When you live on a college campus with 400 student organizations, 45 things to do on any given night, and 6,647 other brilliant minds to probe, you could compellingly argue that reading is a waste of your time and a waste of your parents’ money. The opportunity cost has never been higher for an activity that is not only inherently solitary but also universally available throughout your life. And so we stash our reading lists and wait for a more settled future when the Friday nights do not pound so loudly and the ambition does not burn so bright.

It is a convincing case. More often than not, my books will remain unread for precisely these reasons, because of classes, activities, or impromptu midnight hangouts. Perhaps college is the time when it is hardest to read. But I also believe that our college years are the time of our lives when we need literature most. We need books for precisely the reason that we do not read them—because we consider college one of the most critical and decisive junctions in our life.

Borne against our will toward the crossroads—the terrifying reality of post-graduation and tangible adulthood—we are scrambling to maintain our academic standards, form potentially lifelong connections, and figure out the very meaning and purpose of our confusing lives. But how can we make our lives' biggest decisions using only the thin slice of experience that our 18 to 22 years have given us? This is why we need books more than ever. Reading stretches the boundaries of our experiences and allows us to live other lives vicariously that we will never experience for ourselves. We have spent our entire existence as a human race trying to figure out how to live. The collective wisdom of our findings lies in literature and books.

Stories are essentially worlds that allow us to test out another life. Writers have created worlds so real that we taste the cinnamon in their cocoa and brush against the linens of their bedrooms. It is in literature that we can experience the bitterness of ambition taken too far in “Macbeth,” grapple with the isolation of being an immigrant in search of a better life in “Unaccustomed Earth,” and suffer both the rush and the pain of marital infidelity in “Anna Karenina.” Literature is fossilized amber that preserves pieces of the human experience for us to examine and magnify in search of truths to bring into our own lives.

Here at Harvard, I am often overwhelmed by the unknowable future that lies on the other end of commencement. I stand paralyzed—hungry for the experience and knowledge that 20 years has not yet given me enough of.  Sometimes, I turn to parents, tutors, and professors for guidance. Other times, I only need to turn to my bookshelf and behold centuries of thought on the examined and meaningful life.

Like many at this place, I am asking a most human question: How ought I to live? To start, read deeply.

Andrew D. Kim ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an applied math concentrator in Eliot House.

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