A Tale of Two Cities: The Peace and Plunder of Reading in Cambridge

Hannah Dyball 16 September 2017

It is no secret that life as a Cambridge student involves a substantial amount of reading. At some point during the course of our degrees, almost all of us will have to do battle with at least one gargantuan tome, complete with whichever brand of borderline impenetrable runes a given academic wishes to subject us to, in our eternal quest for enlightenment and (please, God) employment.

This combative approach to academic reading in no way detracts from the love we feel for our subject and it would be a grave injustice to assert that reading for our degree is not enjoyable, at least most of the time. However, the enjoyment that we feel when we complete a piece of reading for study is a very different kind from that which can be derived from its more leisurely counterpart.

There’s a certain degree of ruthlessness intrinsic to reading academically. As my DoS stated at the beginning of my first year, one does not simply read these books: you must raid them. In this spirit, academic reading has become the Dark Souls of literature; you must carefully consider your approach, make your decisions wisely and be prepared to suffer numerous setbacks before you emerge, at last, victorious. It reminds us that these books are not to be read, but to be beaten.

However, Cambridge is a city capable of assuming multiple forms; the Cambridge we experience during our working hours is not the same as the Cambridge we see outside the parameters of our study. The tangled labyrinth of colleges can cast the same imposing shadow of silent expectation as our own work-addled brains, then rise anew as a myriad of architectural wonders positively brimming with opportunities for the broadening of personal horizons. All that this transformation requires is a simple change of mindset.

In a similar fashion, our experience of reading in Cambridge can be altered just as dramatically by shifting our focus away from our daily plunder and pillaging and towards the pursuit of peace and pleasure. That is not to imply that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive: reading for pleasure does not mean that reading something relevant to your subject is some sort of forbidden atrocity. It doesn’t matter what it is that you read; the important factor is that your experience has been changed by a new approach.

The slower, more appreciative pacing of reading for pleasure enables us to read a particular work as the author intended it to be read: with an open mind and without a predetermined agenda. In short, it provides the space necessary for changes of hearts and minds. When we hear people talk about truly life-changing books, we are listening to the results of reading for pleasure and personal growth. As students, we stand on the precipice that marks the end of our formative years and the beginning of our adult lives: reading for pleasure has never been more important.

Even if it is simply a case of setting aside a tiny pocket of reading time every day or two, dedicating an entire evening once a week to literature, or even taking a break between the texts you have to read for your degree to relax with a more luxurious approach to the written word, it is worth finding a way to squeeze in a little cathartic perusal during term-time; for your sanity, if nothing else.

The occasional change of pace that reading for pleasure offers will open your mind to new ideas and possibilities and it will also preserve the odd satisfaction gleaned from striking fear into the heart of your (already slightly nervous) reading list.