Coffee and a book – happy place?Esther Arthurson with permission for Varsity

For me, there is a cloud of enviable sophistication that surrounds people who regularly read, especially on the tube. I am unashamedly in awe of those engrossed in a battered-up book, rather than a Twitter spat or a particularly intense game of Snake.

However, I’m relieved to explain that my miraculous transformation into a “reader” did not begin with superficial jealousy.

Instead, it was borne from a delightful strain of the Cambridge condition: toxic productivity – a symptom that is irritatingly helpful despite its overall destructiveness.

“The thought of reading something for fun never entered my mind”

On my year abroad (don’t worry, that’s the last time I’ll mention it), starved of the academic rigour of a university term, I was convinced I had to cram as much relevant knowledge into my brain as possible. Consequently, the first four books of my continuing spree were either about Russia or Ukraine, neatly fitting within the Slavonic studies remit. The thought of reading something for fun never entered my mind. Or if it did, I sent it on its way with a mental rounders bat.

Unfortunately, after dragging myself through the driest possible iteration of Ukrainian history, I was forced to rethink.

And that was when I discovered my current favourite genre which I will label “Women Somehow Making Me Feel Like I’m Reading a Purely Entertaining Work, When Actually I’m Learning Incredibly Important Things”. I will credit this discovery to Anya Hindmarch, designer and founder of her eponymous accessories brand, and author of If In Doubt, Wash Your Hair. Light-hearted and yet somehow utterly profound, this autobiography-manual deals with cancer, women in business, blended families, female friendship, and body image among other things. I breezed through it easily, but as I came to the end on a flight back to Luton airport, I realised that Anya had given me a great deal of advice, some of which might not be useful until I was in my 40s, but sound advice nonetheless.

Who doesn't love a colour-coded book shelf?Esther Arthurson with permission for Varsity

Ah. So, it appears you can learn from books unrelated to your course. Intriguing.

In a bizarrely semi-self-aware move, my next read was Grace Beverley’s Working Hard, Hardly Working, the 25-year-old entrepreneur’s guide to productivity. I dismissed her warnings that I could be obsessed with results and enamoured with being “just so busy right now”, and only took on board her advice about how to cram as much into one working day as possible.

“If you can manage to read one book that isn’t related to your course, then that is a victory”

Unfortunately, like most heroic trajectories, my journey to enlightenment was interrupted. My brief frolic with Grace and Anya was swapped for weeks spent with testimonies of the Gulag and Latin American novels about fictionalised dictatorships, as I addressed the dire need to read some of the prescribed texts for my final year of the MML Tripos.

Perhaps here lies another reason why I (and I hope other Cambridge students, for the sake of this article) lost a love for reading which we harboured until our teens, depending on its strength. Given an overwhelmingly long list of texts which we should read, the idea of picking up a book to relax would require an impressively deep love of reading.

This is not all down to Cambridge’s extensive reading lists; it is simply the way our education system functions. I’m not suggesting that we allow 16-year-olds to choose whatever book they’d like to write about in their English GCSE exam, but being instructed exactly what to read and what to think about it has surely got to dim anyone’s excitement about reading.


Mountain View

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I’m lucky. I found my texts for Michaelmas to be (mostly) engaging and insightful, so reading them wasn’t a huge chore. However, I was delighted to be reunited with “reading for fun” over the Christmas break. Of course, my favourite genre reappeared with the collections of Dolly Alderton and Marina Hyde’s columns providing me with wonderfully long, lamp-lit evenings of reading.

Looking forward to 2023, my new year’s resolution was not only to read 24 books, but to choose books I actually wanted to read, rather than those which would provide me with “relevant” knowledge. My list includes some classics which I can’t believe I haven’t read yet (1984, The Pursuit of Love and Fahrenheit 451), some funky new works like Marigold and Rose, a novel told from the perspective of twin babies, and (inevitably) some “relevant” books like The Russia Anxiety: And How History Can Resolve It.

Not to preach – Lord knows I haven’t earned the right yet – but if you can manage to read one book that isn’t related to your course, then that is a victory. The result of reading should be widened horizons, but what’s the point if the process doesn’t provide you with any pleasure? I admit that Tiktok scrolling, Netflix perusing and Spotify surfing require less effort, but I promise that reading something inane and witty will probably make you feel better afterwards. Unless that’s the toxic productivity kicking in.