Words: Carla Jellema
Photographs: Thabile vilakazi
Opening Pandora’s box of books
From around the second year of my undergraduate studies I started to develop a paradoxical relationship with reading that I have yet to shake off. During my younger years I truly cherished reading. My infatuation with the story of Beauty and the Beast lead me to genuinely believe that giving someone a library was the most fitting way to declare your love (an unrealistic expectation that I may or may not have partially retained).
Reading was the ultimate beautifully wrapped gift. I enjoy being read to and I take great pleasure in reading with other people. I have the fondest memories of sitting silently in the living room with my father, each immersed in our own text, an activity that is profoundly social for me. It is a way that we could allow each other to explore our own interests while still being in the others company, and it still makes me feel distinctly loved. Then, all of a sudden, reading became my fulltime job. It was something that I would do everyday for hours. Instead of indulging whatever the equivalent is to book worming as a professional extreme sport, the obligation of academic reading was constantly looming over me. Most people that do a degree in humanities quickly discover that the vast majority of this work is reading – pure, raw, consistent and unadulterated reading.
There is no way to cheat on this reading, there is only the need to regularly use dictionary.com and the perplexing realization that somebody has successfully managed to put the word ‘flagellomaniac’ into a political science text book. But I love what I studied. Once I cut through the multiple layers of my own overly developed procrastination skills into actually reading the set material, I immerse myself in the text and enjoy it. I could name more journal articles and academics off the top of my head, that have changed the way I see the world, than I could ever do for
“regular” books. The problem is, I absolutely hate that as a personal truth. As my academic career progressed, the reading I had to get through became enough to fill entire eight-hour days.
The volume and density of the readings made me feel like I was on one of those game shows where you get put in a glass container with money flying around you and you keep only what you can catch. At Masters level the only thing that this full-time reading accomplished was being able to understand what class discussions were about, roughly. With my peers, I felt like the smallest fish in the biggest pond, just getting by with the knowledge I felt constantly pressured to absorb. By myself, I felt like nearly every day I would read something that would make me see the world differently and change my perspective about things I had studied and thought about for years. It was magical but at the same time it stole from me the joy of reading as a hobby.
After entire days where the only colour in front of my eyes was whatever fluorescence comes out of a carefully selected highlighter, there is no way I’m going to pick up a book just to find out what is happening to a fictional character I haven’t yet started to a feel connection with. Simply put, reading giveth, and reading taketh away(eth).
However, what is most shaming about this is how it turned me into one of the many people who spend their free time predominantly concerned with the next episode of Game of Thrones, a YouTube video that people are shocked you haven’t seen yet and ridiculous amounts of animal pictures.
These are individuals like myself, content at being lazy but also deeply envious of those who use their free time to do ridiculous things like exercise, hold down several part time jobs, casually learn Arabic and better themselves through great literary works. My university experience had made me open the beautifully wrapped gift of reading only to discover that it had become my Pandora’s box.
As a disclaimer I’d like to add that many studies show how looking at pictures of cute animals is actually good for your health and productivity, and I am in complete support of this as a regular endeavour.