Growing up, I waited impatiently for Saturday mornings — my family’s designated public library day. My siblings and I would gather all of the library books we had scattered around our house. We put the books from the week prior into a canvas tote bag my mother gave us, which was filled with picture books, fantasy novels, comics and whatever else had piqued our interest at that moment.
Once we were all ready, we would eagerly pile into the back of the car and drive downtown to our city’s public library. We’d chaotically run into the library upon arrival, darting straight to the book return area. My siblings and I were always fascinated by the way book returns worked. Something about the metal mouth opening up, swallowing our books and taking them into the unknown felt far too magical to just be a book return system. In reality, our books would just fall into a bin filled with other books for librarians to put back on the shelves. Still though, we’d try to peek in to see our books slip away from us.
After the returns, we’d go to the kids’ section of the library, weaving in and out of every aisle, carefully yet excitedly looking at each book. After all, if we chose the wrong book, we would have to wait another week before we got an opportunity to come back. Once we had our picks, we would linger in the library, sitting on bean bag chairs and reading the books we would soon take home. My mom would eventually receive the “food is ready” text from my dad and suddenly, it was time to check out and go home. We would once again pile in the back of the car. During this car ride, however, our excitement was always fulfilled as we each pulled out our books and read them on the way back home.
During this time in my life, reading was met with excitement and thrill. I looked forward to the act of reading a story. I would lay on my bed reading “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” while my mom’s calls for dinner were just background noise. Eventually, she’d come to my room and pull me away from my book to eat with my family, but all I could think about was Violet’s three-course dinner gum. There was something about books that allowed me to escape into an alternate reality — one where I could be an observer.
I used to read for the story that the author presented. If I didn’t like a book, there was no pressure or obligation to finish it. As I grew up though, I began to realize this perfect little bubble of reading was not a reality I could maintain. I came to this realization the summer going into my freshman year of high school when I was assigned three novels to read. The summer homework was to carefully analyze and annotate these novels. It was important to look for nearly every rhetorical device (alliteration, hyperboles and personification alike) and stylistic choice the author made. I then had to complete the corresponding essay assignments. It was clear that there was a right and wrong way to go about reading these books. I had to read methodically and carefully, rather than freely. The consequence of not doing it “right” was my grade slipping, and because I valued my education, I could not let that happen.
Gradually, I learned to stop reading for myself. I no longer read for the thrill of the story, but rather for the analysis that my teachers would inevitably want me to do. No one ever explicitly told me to make this change, but it was clear this shift was necessary for me to succeed in school. While adjusting to this change, I began to lose my love of reading. Throughout my high school years, I wondered if the way I thought about literary content was “wrong.” I wanted to think the way my teacher wanted me to think, but I couldn’t help but feel insecure about the way I analyzed texts. In order to combat this insecurity of mine, I resorted to online summaries, like SparkNotes, for the reassurance that I knew deeper meanings and nuanced writing techniques that my teachers emphasized. Reading like this further separated me from the type of recreational reading I grew up loving. How am I supposed to enjoy reading a story when it has been ingrained in me that I should simultaneously be comprehending and looking for something else?
My experience with reading is fairly common among most other people around my age. In fact, 33% of high school students and 42% of college students won’t continue reading books after they graduate. This can most likely be accredited to the school system’s emphasis on reading for the purpose of correct analysis. This method of reading indirectly promotes the idea that reading to simply enjoy a story is shallow. By prioritizing close reading and drawing deeper meanings from the text, teachers unintentionally steer students away from the type of reading they most likely enjoyed when they were younger.
The English curriculum at my high school clearly highlighted dissecting texts, while simultaneously neglecting other intentions for reading. While I can’t go back and change my experience with books and reading during that time, I’m relearning how to enjoy reading. Reading to analyze texts is helpful to understand writing techniques and even improve my own, but it doesn’t have to be my default or sole method of reading. It’s okay to remove any analytical expectations and read just for a good story. It’s okay to want to enter the alternate reality that books can provide without analyzing every sentence. It’s okay to want to read not just to learn, but also to enjoy.
MiC Columnist Meghan Dodaballapur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.