On clandestine reading

Sunday, January 5, 2020 - 6:08pm

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Design by Maggie Wiebe

On a Monday night in November, I sat on my half-lofted dorm bed with a book. It was already 2 a.m. My roommate was sleeping on the other side of the room, and I’d carefully angled my desk lamp away from her so I could continue reading without disturbing her. 

Most weeknights, 2 a.m. is an hour I only experience if I’m staying up to study. But that night, I wasn’t reading for class — I was reading a novel.

Outside our window, I saw a few students walking back from the direction of the Diag with backpacks on — I assumed they were coming from Hatcher or the UGLi. A couple of my friends were studying in the lobby of my dorm building some floors below. As I lay there, I wondered: How many others were reading this late because they really wanted to read? How many of us even read for leisure anymore? 

When I was younger, I devoured stories. I was the type of kid who would say goodnight to her parents with a book and a flashlight under her pillow. I always kept a novel tucked into one of the pockets of my middle school backpack, in case I wanted to read during recess. I remember spending many Saturday afternoons with my dad at Barnes & Noble in the children’s literature section — a magical world.

In high school, I stopped seeing the magic in reading, as did many of my peers. Instead, the majority of my free time was dedicated to homework. If I wasn’t doing homework, I was probably on my way to tennis practice, orchestra rehearsal or club meetings. There just wasn’t any time to read for fun, and I had enough assigned reading on my plate between “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Frankenstein.” Deadlines and forced fishbowl discussions in English class made reading a chore rather than a joy. 

It wasn’t until this past summer when I was finally relieved of the chore of reading. I was stuck in a weird limbo between an ending and a beginning, and for the first time in a long while, I had no obligations. It was a slow, strange summer, placed awkwardly between my graduation from high school and the start of my first semester of college. I had no summer Chemistry packets to solve, English books to read or History essays to write.

Thus, I read. In the muggy heat, I went to Schuler Books, my local bookstore, and explored the expanse of shelves. Eventually, I emerged with an ambitious pile of books in my arms, and then I read and read and read. Upon witnessing this, one of my friends laughed and told me I was making up for the last four years. 

Looking back now, I wish I had realized how precious that time was. Now that it’s winter in Ann Arbor, my life is nothing like it was back then. Summer is long gone — now, it’s cold and bleak out, and everything – from classes, friends, applications, orgs and meetings – is chaotic once again. I am here to get an education, but college life can feel like endless work, work, work. There always seems to be a constant need to be doing something. At times, it feels suffocating. 

On a whim this fall semester, I ordered a novel online. It would be a break from everything, I decided, and maybe it would help make things less chaotic. Maybe I could recreate my lazy days from last summer. When the package arrived, I practically ripped the box apart. I held the book in my hands. It was new, in hardcover: “The Starless Sea,” by Erin Morgenstern. With its black binding and ornate gold engravings along its cover and spine, it reminded me of those books I’d poured over when I was younger, the ones with rough edged paper and maps of fantasy worlds. Despite my initial excitement, it took me awhile to find time to actually sit down and read it: I ended up carrying the book around in my backpack for a few days on the chance I’d find myself free.

The spare moment I’d been waiting for finally came on a Monday night in November. One of my weekly meetings had been canceled on short notice, I’d finished most of my homework and the next day was a light class schedule for me — the universe seemed to be on my side.

So, I sat down on my bed, nestled into the various blankets I’d brought from home, and laid “The Starless Sea” across my lap. I let myself sink into the pages. Before I knew it, it was two in the morning and I was halfway through the book. 

By now, I’ve finished “The Starless Sea.” It’s still sitting on my desk next to my bed, underneath a growing pile of secondhand books I’ve bought from Dawn Treader. If I sit in my bed and read at just the right angle, I can see the gold of the book’s spine glinting under the light of my lamp. It serves as a constant reminder of that Monday night — and the natural magic behind reading that I almost forgot.