Take a gander around my dorm room and you’ll see an RBG bobblehead, empty Jose Cuervo bottles, a poster with a Desmond Tutu quote, a Saybrook mug (with an old tea bag—thanks, frat flu), hair ties filled with my loose strands of curls, and a collection of about 30 books, consisting of new fiction, classics, politics, and poetry. You might say I’m biased, but I believe that literature lives on, at least in my dorm room.
I spent basically the entirety of my free time in 2020 reading books whenever I wasn’t with my best friends or at work. Books became my comfort, my escape, and all the other cliché things people usually say when talking about how “reading allows you to step into another world.” Well, when in a pandemic, stepping into another world is precisely what one needs.
Taking a gap year finally allowed me the time to sit down and pick up the objects that get so much esteem, that people make fortunes off of, that adults spend hours in stores for, that colleges make so much money off of: books. Parents always encourage reading instead of watching TV; teachers assign classics such as The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Invisible Man. What is it about reading that makes it so special? Why does society, especially its older members, prize literature so much?
I sit down in my beanbag, take a few seconds to get comfortable, and flip open to the first page of The Bell Jar. At this point in my gap year, I am lonely, to be honest. I have become caught in a routine I can’t seem to fall out of, and I am waiting patiently for the depression to go away.
I start reading and I don’t stop. Esther’s life consumes my own and my page turning becomes automatic. I go downstairs two hours later for water and an apple halfway through the journey, enter back into my room and then back into Plath. There is beauty to the words, something special about the way she conveys the descent that I find familiar. Most powerful is how the words on the page give shape to things I couldn’t describe or didn’t know existed in my own life until I read them.
This is what literature does. It provides us with language for the stories inside our heads that we can’t be sure mirror the happenings inside others until we read the page. There is power in writing what goes on in your mind, and there is power in reading what goes on in the minds of others.
I can argue why I love books and reading all day long. I can tell you my favorites, give you recommendations based on your taste, quote Jane Austen. But I can’t make you love reading.
Throughout my gap year, I tutored a third grader in reading and writing via Zoom. Aside from her constant asides about wanting a puppy, I thought, “Maybe I really can get this girl to fall in love with books. I think I have a shot.” But week after week, she was more interested in pool parties, and what movie to watch that night.
The issue is that for younger generations, technology is quicker, more exciting, and more immediately rewarding. How do you get a nine-year-old to pick up a book when they can jump on the trampoline? How do you get a 15-year-old to choose Little Women over likes on Instagram?
And we have so little time. How do you get a high schooler to read for fun when they have parties and college applications on their mind?
Reading gives you a sense of patience; in a world so defined by the clicking of buttons, the blocked out GCals, 15-second TikToks, reading forces you to combat your short attention span and absorb beauty at a slower pace.
The readers that remain are rare. I was lucky to be matched with a suite full of humanities majors who have provided me with extensive book recommendations and many nights spent reading and writing (my last Saturday night consisted of wine, Virginia Woolf, creative writing, and then peer editing—please don’t call me a nerd). But is it just the “nerds” (okay, I’ll admit it) who keep literature alive? Is the rest of the world just reading and writing only when they have to, without seeing the purpose? I fear that the appreciation of words is facing a slow trickling down. I love a weekend spent reading, writing, and perusing bookstores (and buying way too many books that I don’t have time to read), but am I one of the last?
I worry that other students’ mantles have Jose Cuervo, but they don’t have José Saramago. José, please live on.