"At home, I valued the alone time that came with reading – at Cambridge, it can become rather isolating."Illustration by Jakob Werbrouck for Varsity

For as long as I can remember, I have always had a book on the go. And, since the age of seven, when I was first able to independently tackle a novel, reading has held a special place in my life. It is an activity that I associate with relaxation, whether pacing through chunks of text whilst lazing on a beach on holiday or reading a quick chapter before going to sleep at night. There is also something magically soothing about sinking into a good book whilst in the bath, allowing you to temporarily escape from the stress of the real world.

At fifteen, I started working in a local independent bookshop which, for me, was a haven. Unlike eBooks or audiobooks, I’ve always felt a strange sort of emotional attachment to physical books; the smell, the knowledge that a story is your possession, and the pleasure of browsing physical copies will always make me happy.

Unsurprisingly, my reading patterns changed drastically when I started university. Swamped with reading lists, I was quite overwhelmed by the realisation that the majority of my time was now to be spent with my head in a book, although not necessarily a book that I would personally pick from a shelf. That’s not to say that I never enjoy academic material. I enjoy my course and, every now and again, have the experience of reading some seriously inspiring text. My routine, however, has buckled under the pressure of academia.

“Instead of naturally sinking into a book, it can sometimes feel like the brain is in overdrive...”

It’s no secret that time is a precious thing in Cambridge; I was hardly expecting to spend hours indulging in the latest publications with a cup of tea in hand. Yet, I rarely manage to even squeeze in a chapter of a novel in the evenings, since I’ll either be working (still), spending time with friends, or winding down with the aid of Netflix. The concepts of both time and reading for pleasure are somewhat ambivalent within the Cambridge bubble.

Humanities students are particularly affected by this issue. We have no choice but to spend most of our days reading, and it is relentless. Not only does this take time, but it takes its toll on levels of motivation and concentration. I consider myself as having a pretty strong ability to focus on tasks for a long period of time, yet I regularly find myself having to return to the start of a page, having read it without absorbing a single word.

After a day spent working, head craned over my desk, it is very unlikely that I reach for another book in search of relaxation. As a result, the notion of reading for pleasure seriously dwindles. Not only does reading require concentration, but it is an independent activity.


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At home, I valued the alone time that came with reading – at Cambridge, it can become rather isolating. I’ve seen far too many Camfesses regarding loneliness than can be justified and feel that reading for pleasure arguably takes a role reversal when applied to uni life, as lack of social engagement is undoubtedly detrimental to mental and emotional health. After a reading day, everyone needs to step out of the library or their room and have a good old chat.

Not only has university changed my patterns of reading, but it has changed the way I read. Through my degree, I have had close reading and critical thinking instilled in my approach to literature, so much so that it is difficult to pick up a book lightly. This is positive because it increases the intellectual benefits of reading: being able to ‘read between the lines’ enables access to the interesting theoretical aspects of books and reveals the big questions that it takes into consideration, which could otherwise be overlooked.

On the other hand, being unable to break out of this habit has the danger of making pleasurable reading feel like work. Instead of naturally sinking into a book, it can sometimes feel like the brain is in overdrive, constantly trying to glean intellectual substance. I believe, though, that this is manageable, and that it only takes the right mindset for it to become a benefit.

The biggest influence that my life at Cambridge has had on my attitude to reading is that I now appreciate reading for pleasure so much more. Now halfway through my degree, I have come to accept that reading for pleasure is reserved for the holidays, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This way, I can set aside those hefty classics for a time when I can truly immerse myself in the experience of storytelling. This summer, I am determined to tick Les Misérables off my list.

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