Reading lists can often become black holes of books you don't want to delve intoFlickr: Judit Klein

Iconic abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” I heartily agree. If, that is, “forever” is not inclusive of the time during which you are shackled by the chains of a Cambridge reading list – a nuance which I’m sure was implicitly insinuated.

“Naturally, there is always something more I could be reading”

As an MML student I have witnessed my enjoyment of reading gradually wither over the course of my degree – so much so that, despite being sick to the teeth of reading, I miss it. And, by “it”, I should clarify that I’m not referring to academic reading and am in no way yearning for an extra hit of profoundly depressive French oeuvres, but pine instead for the beautifully innocent activity of reading for an increasingly foreign concept: pleasure.

According to YouGov, the average number of books that adults read for pleasure per year is ten. Last year, that was an embarrassing ten more than me – a somewhat shameful statistic for someone who claimed in their personal statement that “reading is a perfect way to enrich my knowledge of both culture and language”. It is an unfortunate truth that Cambridge students are likely to have to read masses for their degree, and therefore reading as a hobby feels too much like work to be able to enjoy it.

What can one do, then, to fall back in love with reading? It is, after all, an incredibly therapeutic activity, providing an escape from the Cambridge stress bubble and a distraction from current worries. Better yet, it offers a more prolonged, involved experience than that provided by a binge-watch on Netflix; we’ve all felt lost and empty after finishing our favourite series, but when was the last time we let ourselves get as emotionally involved in a book? The Cambridge Companion to Dante just doesn’t quite cut it, provoking a greater feeling of relief and slight incredulity upon completion, as opposed to that delightful bereft satisfaction.

It is, of course, incredibly difficult to separate reading for pleasure from the panicked, largely unsatisfying practice of skim-reading for an essay, but it is also something worth trying to fit it into term time. I have personally found that the best way to get back into reading is through self-deception – convincing myself I will enjoy and benefit from reading this book; for me, the issue lies in the actual idea of doing yet more reading as opposed to the reading itself. Currently, on my year abroad, I don’t even have a great deal of other reading to be doing but, being so out of practice, I still had to psych myself up to a non-academic book. Yet once I had begun, I was getting through about three books a week and loving it. Although this pace may not be sustainable when back in Cambridge, I nevertheless intend to continue reading outside of my course when I return. Even if just for ten minutes before bed, or a chapter over lunch, a little bit of reading every day can surprisingly help to break up… all the other reading.

And if the thought of looking at even more words still fills you with dread, or you don’t know where to begin, I found re-reading a book I already knew I loved (The Kite Runner, if you’re wondering) a good way in; there was no concern that I might be wasting my time on something I wouldn’t even enjoy. Moreover, it was so evidently not geared to my academic enrichment – as I associated it with the care-free, non-Cambridge environment in which I had first read it – that it was relatively easy to compartmentalise it from reading for work. Alternatively, try a book that is vaguely related to your course. After having convinced myself of the linguistic benefits of reading the Harry Potter series in French, I was able to actually switch off any guilt I felt about taking time out for “fun reading”, because I was supposedly picking up vocabulary.


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Naturally, there is always something more I could be reading, and I simply cannot ignore the pressing guilt of neglecting that, as I anxiously try to force myself to enjoy the novel my gran bought for me last Christmas that I bring along every term in blind hope. Even if I may otherwise have enjoyed reading a particular text, at least a little bit of the joy will be sucked out of it from the knowledge that I have to read it, which leads to nigh-on obsessive page-counting.

Despite the reams of compulsory reading prescribed to us, I think it is truly worthwhile to read something a little different, just for us, in the knowledge that this is time set aside (whether it be an hour over lunch or five minutes waiting outside your supervision) specifically for our enjoyment. Although perhaps not directly course-related, the benefits are still apparent: reading can help significantly in reducing stress, in encouraging you to consider alternative perspectives and in discovering other cultures. Not to mention that the more you read, the faster you get – an undeniable plus for storming that reading list

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