How I Rediscovered My Love Of Reading

During my childhood I was an avid reader, my mum jokes that as soon as I learnt how to read I would be found most often sat silently in a corner engrossed in a book. I have never been talkative, throughout my life I have shied away from social occasions, so where other people found solace or comfort in talking to others and meeting-up with people, I have always found my peace of mind in books. However, studying English in Higher Education really slashed my enthusiasm for reading. The magic of novels was decimated when we analysed their words to death in English lessons and plots were reduced to the tools used by authors to further their own messages. My teachers passed around hand-outs on the books we were reading as if they were maths equations that could be taken apart and looked at coldly like cogs in a machine.

Then I began to worry about what kind of books I should be reading outside of class. I would pick-up books in shops with a sense of excitement only to reluctantly place them back on their shelves because I resolved that these were not the kinds of books my teachers would approve of. I saw books through the eyes of my teachers and was sad to think that they would probably laugh scornfully at me for reading popular fiction rather than classics. Then, when it came to actually reading books outside of the classroom, I found that I could not enjoy them the same way I did when I was a child. When I was younger I read for the fun of it, because it was my time which could not be dictated by anyone else, I could disappear into stories and in my head there would live copious amounts of make-believe settings and scenarios which were generated by the books I read. However, studying English made me feel like I wasn’t doing my job properly if I wasn’t analysing books as I read them and second-guessing every other thing the author wrote. I simply could not enjoy reading or lose myself in books anymore.

Over the course of 2018 though, I have rediscovered my love of reading. I made reading a priority of mine and ensured that I left myself time to read books that had nothing to do with my University course or whatever I was studying at the time. Once I stopped agonising over what sort of books people expected me to read, I gave myself a new sense of freedom when it came to choosing books. Since then I haven’t limited myself to books which require me to read them slavishly and labour over the same paragraph multiple times to decipher its Old English meanings. Don’t get me wrong, I still like to read classics which were written in traditional English but only in small doses. I haven’t put barriers up between me and the author and their plot since I have abandoned the boring cynicism which A-Level English instilled in me that authors only construct plots so that they can slide in their own messages in the subtext, as if they are conspiratorially tricking us into a false sense of security. Nowadays I give myself over to the books I read with a sense of indulgement, I allow myself to live with the characters rather than view them sceptically from afar.

I have also discovered a new love of mine; non-fiction. When I was younger I resolutely avoided non-fiction and stood with the conviction that it must be terribly boring, like reading my science textbooks from school. I thought that the style of non-fiction would be dry and hard-going and that reading those books would feel like a chore because you could not escape into them like you could with fiction books. Again, I emphasise that I thought all of these things without actually bothering to experiment and read a non-fiction book, so I was basing these judgements on absolutely nothing. However, a family friend recommended ‘The Psychopath Test’ by Jon Ronson to me, which in hindsight could be viewed as a bit of an offensive book title to recommend, I don’t know what they were trying to imply… I eyed it across my room wearily for a few weeks before deciding to take the plunge and I loved it. I laughed my head off like a maniac throughout reading it like an addict, devouring every word hungrily, essentially unable to put the book down. That book opened new doors for me. I now refuse to limit what I read whatsoever. Whenever I feel myself forming an assumption about whether a certain book is ‘for me’ or not, I stop myself because my interests surprise me sometimes and you only grow by testing your boundaries, so reading something which seems out of character may not be such an awful thing after all.

Essentially, I am proud of myself for the progress I made with reading this year. So far I have read 16 books which have all been diverse and many of them I would never have expected myself to enjoy. Along the way I have learnt new things, laughed like a drain into Jon Ronson books and found my solace again in reading.

“A word after a word after a word is power.” – Margaret Atwood

5 Lessons I Learned From The Harry Potter Books

1. You get out what you put into relationships

The bond Harry, Ron and Hermione share impels them to never let one another fight a battle alone or without each other’s love and support, no matter how many times they get into arguments amongst themselves. In the same way, the Order of the Phoenix and the passion they share for a common cause means that they can trust and rely on each other even in the darkest of times. Relationships based on this level of commitment stand the test of time throughout the books, in contrast to those which are founded on fear like the ones Voldermort illicits.  

2. Do not judge people on the basis of assumptions

Peter Pettigrew was one of the most cowardly, selfish and deceitful characters in the whole series yet he belonged to a house which prided itself on the values of courage and chivalry, showing that you cannot form a judgement about people on the basis of very few facts. In addition, Regulus Black was able to learn the error of his ways and die for the right cause even after coming from a family of pure-blood elitists and spending his school years in Slytherin house which cherishes ambition and cunning rather than putting morality before self-interest, supposedly. People disregarded Neville as being incompetent or a weakling, yet he was the one who managed to kill Nagini, the snake, in the end. People also scorned Luna for her eccentricities and constantly undermined her intellect, yet she was one of the most dedicated and effective members of Dumbledore’s Army.

3. Money and status can leave you hollow

The Malfoys begin the stories as a family with an immense amount of influence, status and wealth which they direct from their lavish mansion. Yet, Draco’s insecurity is immediately evident as he resorts to being the school bully to maintain his status. Later, the Malfoy family becomes fractured by the weight of their immoral and dark choices, leading Draco to spiral into a deep well of sadness. On the other hand, the Weasleys are characterised by their warmth, love and likability despite the fact that they are always under financial pressure and struggling to produce enough money for their family. Arthur and Molly raise their children with the highest amount of care and nourishment anyone could give and prove that they do not need the sort of resources which the Malfoys have at their disposal to be a happy family.

4. Every being deserves respect

The magical creatures are very loyal to those who show them respect and those who do not inevitably suffer the consequences. It is often the coldest and most unhappy characters who show no consideration for the magical creatures whilst it is the warmest characters who do. Hippogriffs for example respond with great loyalty and kindness to those who show them respect in the form of a deep bow. The Harry Potter books show that approaching animals with kindness and openness makes all the difference in your interaction with them.

5. Those who are happy in themselves lift others up

Throughout the books, it is the most unhappy characters who seek to undermine and bring others down, such as the Malfoys who scorn muggle-borns, muggle sympathisers and those who are not wealthy. The Dursleys are also immensely cruel to Harry because they feel threatened by his magical talent and they cannot stand being usurped in their status. In contrast, Hagrid’s happy and optimistic demeanour lifts those around him up and he is a consistently comforting sight to Harry, Hermione and Ron.

‘You sort of start thinking anything is possible if you’ve got enough nerve.’ – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

BIG MAGIC

Yesterday evening I finished reading ‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert and I feel lucky to have read a book that connected so profoundly with my own state of mind, my own needs and my own perspective. It reminded of a fact which I have forgotten since studying at University; that creating art can be fun. University puts so much emphasis on masterpieces and the genius of those who make it into the literary canon that I have forgotten the nuances of creative experience. This book reminded me not to put so much pressure on myself, I do not have to write pieces for the express purpose of them being profound or important, instead I can create and write for the joy of it.

Here are five of the most important lessons that I took from ‘Big Magic’:

1. Do not be fearful of your art, be playful and curious with it

I think that most people who create anything go through periods where they are too scared to pick up a pen, a paint brush or whatever their implement of choice because they are worried about the outcome. Either they are scared of people laughing at what they have created, they fear that they will feel let down by their own efforts or that they will not find any inspiration to engage with. Firstly, Gilbert reminds us that the act of just focusing on creating art in whatever form is a human victory in itself and if someone laughs at you for it then you can feel sorry for them for completely missing the point of a creative existence. Secondly, being self-critical is okay in small doses but once in a while we should give ourselves a pat on the back for just exercising our creative energies whether we created something we loved or not because at least we are teaching ourselves and bettering our creativity during the process. Thirdly, inspiration comes in many forms, sometimes it is clear and easy to decipher, at other times it seems to hide from us and we have to tease out it’s content bit by bit through being open and determined to find that next creative spark.

2. Do not take yourself too seriously, your art will suffer if your ego takes control

“How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren’t going so great, is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation”

Something about this quote from the book really resonated with me. When I am going through patches where I feel that my creativity has dried-up and I am just producing inane drivel I feel so frustrated and angry at creativity, I blame it for leaving me adrift. However, there is no point on sitting around aimlessly waiting for a lightning bolt of genius to hit you and gift you the bulk of a novel on a silver platter. Equally there is no point in refusing to create in these dry patches because you believe that you have too much self-respect to create something anything less than greatness – that is your ego talking. Keep creating just for the sheer hell of it, this is your life and if you feel a calling to live your life creatively then you have to ride the rough with the smooth and keep exercising those creative energies whilst keeping the faith that the incomparable feeling of inspiration will visit you again when both you and it are ready.

3. You do not have to go through pain or misery to produce good and profound art

Creating should be fun, however this is never a point which is emphasised within the arts. Instead, I have been lectured numerous times on the individual pains which the great writers went through to write their famous works. It is almost like we are taught that creating has to be a form of purgatory, we cannot enjoy it, instead it must be torture and it has to be agony to produce whatever it is that we want to. There is a myth that any profound art must come from a place of darkness where a person has struggled against hatred of the creative process to bring their idea into reality. I know that creativity can sometimes be frustrating but why can’t it also be fun? Why can’t I be playful with my inspiration and ideas rather than have to permanently suffer because of them? 

4. The Earth will not stop spinning if your creation is not perfect

“while it’s definitely true that failure and criticism will bruise my precious ego, the fate of nations does not depend on my precious ego.”

Sometimes we can be paralysed by the fear that what we have created is not good enough and so we will do nothing with it. I have fallen into this trap many times, the notion that if I am not writing with the intention of producing a master piece or something profound and original then I shouldn’t write at all. However, if I take a step back I can see how ridiculous this is! Who the hell has the authority to decide what a masterpiece is anyway? I can create because I love to and to hell with anyone who says that the imperfections in my writing make it stupid and pointless, the imperfections they see in my writing are probably what makes it distinct and mine anyway. Plus, nothing dramatic is going to happen if I produce something which is nearer the crappy end of the scale rather than the genius end. Sure, it will be disappointing and I will be sad about it but then the world goes on and I will take what I need to from that experience and move on because no big seismic shift will occur in the world because I produced a story with blatant plot holes and grammatical errors.

5. Creativity should be cherished

“I am referring to the supernatural, the mystical, the inexplicable, the surreal, the divine, the transcendent, the otherworldly. Because the truth is, I believe that creativity is a force of enchantment – not entirely human in its origins.”

As you can see from the quote, Gilbert talks and thinks about creativity in a reverential way. She speaks about it like it is a force which is outside of our understanding, unpredictable and totally, divinely, beautiful. I believe this too. I cannot explain creativity or inspiration, its ebbs and its flows. Sometimes it shines its full grace on me and I feel completely immersed in the magical feeling of imagination, purpose and art. Other times its a little trickier to place and I have to pursue inspiration with a renewed sense of determination. Either way, creativity is a hard idea to pinpoint precisely because of its unknown nature. People who live a creative life place their trust and faith in a force which can seem like it is playing them at times; teasing them with an idea just outside of their grasp. However, the way creativity can light-up our lives and bring us out of the usual routine of things surely means that it should be cherished, respected and revered.

 

WHAT SCHOOL RUINED…

When did life stop being about romance novels set in idyllic cottages in the English countryside? When did I stop curling up with a bookend reading for fun without the pressure to analyse every piece of grammar?

Reading books used to be about fun for me. I could escape into someone else’s story, dream about them and pretend to inhabit their world. My imagination would be set alight by the endless possibilities of different endings and ideas for sequels so that I could keep that world alive. I would feel at my most safe when I was huddled under blanket knowing that I didn’t even have to move from the sofa for the rest of the afternoon if I didn’t want to, I could just sit in peace and read.

I devoured books quickly because I was hungry for that spark of magic that they held. I couldn’t savour them for long as quickly passed onto the next one that was sure to pull my into its own world. In this way, I had one corner of my life that was reserved purely for happiness and adventure through books.

I think I have lost these feelings though somewhere. I think I left them behind when I became desperate to prove myself to be an academic and someone who had an insight into pieces of text because I relied on my academic ability to feel like I had any self-worth. I stopped looking at books as magic portal keys into a different world and instead saw them as an opponent I had to face and conquer; something that wasn’t to be enjoyed but to be pulled apart and critiqued through the voice and eyes of someone else. I wrote long essays on books using opinions that weren’t true to me but what I thought would impress my teachers. I lost any passion for literature because if I read a book that wasn’t a Classic or prestigious I had the voice of a snooty academic in the back of my head telling me that was reading an unoriginal piece of commercial writing.

I realise now what a mistake it was for me to give into this voice. Reading made me happy and by giving in to people who felt that they had the right to lecture me on what was good and bad was ridiculous. If I get a sense of enjoyment out of book then I can think that it is good. It doesn’t matter that I am 18 and I still hunger to pore through the shelves of YA fiction in Waterstones, why can’t I give into that impulse if it makes me happy? Books don’t have to be micro-analysed. They can be if that is what you are using it for but primarily surely they are there to engage with the reader in whatever way they can. Also, I’m pretty sure authors wouldn’t be happy with teachers telling pupils what they should and shouldn’t think and feel in relation to their book. Books are made to be enjoyed, not for a teacher to force it down someone’s throat.