Sitting in the common room of Elliot A. Wilson ’15 and Sarah E. Coughlon ’15, I can’t help but feel as though I’m visiting the office of an eclectic English professor. I’m perched on the edge of the couch, surrounded by walls of shelves stacked with books and plays. I’m reminded that, though many Harvard students find themselves too busy to read for leisure, an affirming amount of the student population collects books and reads for fun, amassing some pretty exemplary bookshelves in the process.
“We should probably tell her about competitive reading,” Coughlon says to Wilson. It turns out the pair’s massive collection isn’t just a hobby—it’s a full-fledged rivalry. Both friends use the website Goodreads to track what they’ve read. Wilson explains, “I’d started in high school, and was mean to Sarah freshman year about her reading habits, and it just so happened that Goodreads instituted a Challenge Yourself book-reading competition, and so we ended up not only challenging ourselves, but each other. We both read 100 or more books [that] year.”
But what counts as “a book” for the competition? Coughlan explains, “The rule I had was that I can get away with reading a lot of short plays, or Elliot reads a bunch of children’s books, as long as I read, say, “Infinite Jest” in the same year.” She points to a stack on her desk to show me that she has “a couple goals for the year”; I spy “The Principles of Psychology”, “the Qu’ran”, and some moral philosophy.
Rather than going simply for volume, the pair also seek out book editions that are novel or interesting. “I think we’re tied for oldest printed book,” he says, indicating a copy of Cicero’s “Orations” from 1895, the same year of publication of Coughlan’s copy of “Silas Marner”. In fact, Wilson’s book collection started with retro book editions he “borrowed” during high school. He pulls a tattered copy of the “Iliad” from his shelf and shows me the inside cover. “This is a school ‘Iliad’ published in the mid-’20s that belonged to Helen R. Candle, 420 Riverside Drive. There’s even a little note that got passed to her about a class president election, and there’s a place where she burned the pages with a cigarette, like someone had her first smoke in high school in the ‘40s.”
The pair’s shelves aren’t covered with clutter like many student’s bookshelves, but each collector has a single shelf filled with wine glasses. Wilson jokes that the pair are “inverted Hemingways” who drink and read rather than write, but Coughlon ties her books and glasses to a different sort of lifestyle. “Pleasure reading is a thing that not enough people do,” she says, “and I find it to be an enormous source of joy and relaxation. Combining my book collection with not binge drinking, like sitting down with a nice glass of wine and reading, forces me to slow down and be deliberate about reading, like using non-solo-cups to drink slowly.”