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Reading as an Adult vs. Reading in High School


Since I graduated in 2008, the time of "holy crap I'm ten years out of high school and I barely even feel like a functional adult" is drawing nigh. One thing I constantly wonder about is, why I was so interested in reading in high school and don't do it quite as much as an adult. Well, I used to read fanatically, AP Literature and Modern Fiction being my favorite high school classes. Since then, the amount I'm reading and the extent to which my reading is keeping up with the publishing of new bestsellers has slowed.

I mean, I still read. I'm reading The Last Unicorn right now. I have like $16 in overdue library fees. I still like to go to Barnes & Noble on the reg. But I feel like, as far as that big list of "THE IMPORTANT BOOKS EVERYONE MUST READ", I'm not making much progress on that list since high school. Which is weird, because the books on that list are things that involve themes that should resonate even more with adults than with teenagers.

So, I guess it seems like a good time to do a bit of personal reflection and think about, for me at least, how my experience of reading changed when I left the context of high school literature classes.

Realization 1: Reading What I Want


One thing you realize as an adult is how little sense it makes to let some authority figure tell you what you should be reading. As a kid, it makes a bit more sense, seeing as how kids lack the knowledge and experience (usually, though I daresay I did not, as something of a reading prodigy kid) to determine for themselves what they should read for their mental development. Today I've never made much progress with an attempt to read "the classics". I couldn't get through Dune, or Atlas Shrugged, and I got bored pretty quickly with Anna Karenina and all of those "classics" just made me wonder what other people saw in those that I didn't, why those authors were hailed by many as geniuses when I saw their work as uninteresting and banal.

A good book has a kind of magic to it. It sings to your soul, the very core of you, it resonates with your ethereal essence. Or some crazy New Age stuff like that. What I'm saying is, if a book is right for you, you feel it and know it from a place deep within you. You don't need the advice of a blogger or talk show host or a professor. They can offer suggestions, but what speaks to you might be radically different from what speaks to them, as if your souls were separated by a high wall or range of mountains or vast sea.

When I give myself permission to not like that which is critically acclaimed "high art", and to enjoy that which is considered rubbish because it feels warm and personal so that I can say "but this is MY rubbish", I enjoy what I read more. For me, this means specifically, I prefer fantasy and science fiction to classic literature. I've had to do a lot to make peace with that, because the world is constantly telling me what I like is childish garbage compared to the "great" works of "brilliant minds" supposedly set in stone on the lists of the greatest novels.

Our minds are precious things that need autonomy to explore the world in their own ways, on their own terms. That's not something you can learn in a class. It requires a personal journey.


Realization 2: Reading for Myself

If it means reading fewer books, I feel like it's still better because I'm reading for my own purposes, and not just to please a teacher, impress the other smart kids at school, win at Scholastic Bowl, or to pass a class. I have reasons to read now, but they're internally motivated. For some people, that explains why reading drops off after high school or college altogether; they never had any intrinsic motivation to read by themselves. They were only ever doing it because someone else was telling them to. But since high school, I have been able to connect with what I like about reading, what I look for in a reading experience. It feels more organic and real and connected to my life. I think I would do better if I searched out books similar to books and fictional stories in film and television I like already, than to find some list of "classics" someone else thinks everyone should read in one's lifetime.

For example, I got interested in gnosticism when studying symbolism in Neon Genesis Evangelion. That TV Tropes page led me to Valis by Philip K. Dick, a novel about how going mad is sometimes the rational response to reality, which shares a lot with Evangelion. That led me to check out what else Phillip K. Dick has done, leading me to discover his brilliant masterpiece Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? aka Blade Runner. So, my discovery of that book and the very different film adaptation of it arose organically. I probably wouldn't have connected with the book so strongly if it had been assigned, or if I had chose it randomly off a list of great science fiction novels. A list like that or a class can be a good starting point, but I also think the best books we read stem from some kind of real connection to something we love like that.


Realization 3: I Didn't Really "Read" Assigned Books in High School

Thinking back, I couldn't tell you the plot of for example, Native Son, a book I "read" as part of a class in high school. In a literature class, what I did was figure out what I was supposed to know and be able to say about a book, and I merely skimmed the books for neat little quotes I could use to talk about the themes or motifs. But since we so focused on ideas and symbols in the books, the actual details of the plot are things I barely remember. I know that The Scarlet Letter is about themes of sexual morality in a Christian community, but I couldn't tell you what happens first after Hester gets out of jail in the beginning, or when her husband returns, or when it's revealed to the reader that the man Hester had an affair with was a reverend. I know that the names Pearl, Dimmsdale, and Chillingworth are supposed to reflect traits of those characters; innocence, dim wits, and coldness, respectively. But I couldn't recite even a basic outline of the plot, because doing that was never essential to the essays for which I was being graded.

So, outside of the grading system, I have a much better grasp of what happens in the books I do read. I may not remember every chapter of say, A Feast for Crows, but I could describe what happens in that book in a lot more specific detail than I could for a book I read in high school. It's not just recency either, I could describe Animal Farm in more detail than The Great Gatsby, because I read the one as a child for personal enjoyment and the other as part of a class assignment. Any details I give about the latter book would probably just come forth because the movie refreshed my memory.

But the experience of reading The Great Gatsby was such a chore. I didn't like or care about any of the major characters. Their experiences as extremely wealthy people were foreign to me, a poor fatherless girl whose mother worked a string of minimum wage jobs to keep us alive. Whose mother then married and was stuck married to a complete asshole, gaining a tiny bit of financial stability at the expense of any and all domestic peace. There was no Great Gatsby 1920's glamour in my situation. I was not so powerful and big I could spend my days brooding over lost love and have everyone think I was deep and poetic for doing so. I had chores to do and school to go to, and the book seemed like an insult to my life, seeing as how the rich titular character saw a poor girl, Myrtle, as his personal plaything, a toy for his amusement, because of his wealth. But never as someone he, a "respectable" man could actually honor with marriage. He could fuck her, and that was it. When you're poor, the book is saying, you exist to get fucked. (Now I'm wondering why they even assigned it? It's not like Bloomington, Illinois is some kind of great hub of the elites.)

So, the book I was assigned did not actually resonate with me. You know what book really did? The Devil Wears Prada. I read that book in high school also, but not as an assignment, as part of book club and because we could read anything we wanted to in Modern Fiction class and talk about it, as long as it was, in fact, modern fiction, which is a pretty big playground to roam through. When I read that book, it presented both the wealthy boss and her extremely beleaguered young assistant as fully human, in contrast to the way The Great Gatsby kind of dehumanizes everyone, reducing them to their class, gender, and background. There's no tedious conversation about "new money" vs. "old money" and other shit I couldn't be paid to care about as a teenager. Devil Wears Prada isn't about that, it's about work. About hustling and struggling every day to do a hard job for which you're unlikely to be appreciated. About how to make it in life without compromising your soul in the process. About discovering who you are, by discovering your limits. About pushing yourself beyond what you would ever thought reasonable. I admired the heroine, Andrea, because she did not simply quit in stressful situations where any sane person would quit. I quit a lot of things, so I admired in her a trait I lack in myself. That book was a real inspiration. Gatsby? Eh, not so much.

So, while I'm not saying that no assigned books resonated with my personal experiences, I do feel that the lack of control a student has over what they read in school usually means the process of reading for classes is less fulfilling, less meaningful, and let's face it, involves much less actual reading. I skimmed. I snatched quotes to talk about like a falcon snatching a bluebird from its nest. I doodled, I fell asleep. I daydreamed. I looked it up on Google, Wikipedia, and Spark Notes. I got an A on my essay and moved on. That's very different from the books I consumed, internalized, and will remember until the day I take my last breath.


Most people probably find that their motivation to read, especially the "classics" wanes after high school or college, when they've stopped taking literature classes. But I think that's a shame, because the experiences I had in terms of assigned reading were often more shallow and disconnected from my personal experience than my experiences reading books I actually like and chose for myself.

(I did like some of the books I read in class, but I still think the focus on skimming for the purposes of discussion of themes was often a detriment to real reading.)

I don't see a lack of motivation to read as an adult to necessarily mean a person is dumb. I think it implies a fault in the way literature is taught, or rather, how it's forced on us. It is rarely something we get to seek out based on a real connection work of fiction B has with work of fiction A that we already like, which I think is the surest way one can find meaningful enjoyment in a book. Everyone likes stories and imagination. It's just an error of education that many people think "reading" implies you must read from THE LIST OF STUFFY PRETENTIOUS CLASSICS YOU NEED A PHD TO UNDERSTAND. It doesn't. If you try to read that way, you're going to hate it, and probably give up on reading. What you should do is find books that are meaningful to you based on what you already know and like. I like TV Tropes, because it lets you find fictional works that use the same tropes in different ways, so you can find other works with the same elements and see who wrote it better.

I can lament all I want about how I read less than I did in high school. But you know what, what I do read, I'm having a better time reading!

Find your bliss, your book bliss!