Do literature students lose the capacity to read for pleasure?

Cait Findlay 31 March 2017

This week, the headline article of The Times Magazine condemned technological advancements for creating ‘Generation iKid’. Scrolling and swiping iPad screens before they can walk, today’s addicted youngsters have been consumed by Monster Media. For most of these ‘iKids’, the world of the book belongs to a dull and distant age. It is certainly not something to do for pleasure.

As a toddler and young girl, I would have been a dream-child for Adam Alter, the psychologist featured in the article who refuses even to take out his smartphone before his one-year-old. I loved books. Everything about them – visiting the library, sitting down with my mum to read, looking at the pictures – was a source of pure pleasure. Now a first-year English student, my choice of books is more A Room of One’s Own than Room on the Broom, but have I also lost that wonderful, innocent ability to enjoy a book simply for what it is? My studies have armed me with a formidable critical weaponry – I know about the modernist developments of the 1920s, how to discuss tonal shifts and what an onomatopoeia is (and how to spell it!). Does this hinder rather than enhance my reading experience? Are literature students always seeking to penetrate the depths of a text? Are we left feeling guilty if we passively allow our reading material to wash over us? In short, have I killed that wonderful experience of reading for pleasure so prized from my childhood?

Or perhaps I don’t need to panic. Maybe I simply enjoy texts in a different way? By understanding the intricate literary threads of structure and imagery from which books are constructed, I am able to access texts in ways off-limits to science students (one up to the Arts!). I recently had to endure a long conversation with my mathematician uncle as he complained that he didn’t ‘get’ Shakespeare because it was ‘just a mush of words’. To English students, however, this ‘mush’ is magical. It is a melting pot of glorious feats of language, allusion, and sound. My enjoyment of the Bard’s plays undoubtedly increases as I spend more time with them, unravelling their witty puns and linguistic subtleties. It’s similar to Practical Criticism, which, like Marmite, you either love or hate. I am a fervent member of team ‘love’ and am never happier than when I am teasing out the nuances of a text in some hard-core close analysis. It is horrifying for me to think that, had I not chosen to study English, I would have been almost entirely excluded from this level of appreciation and understanding which brings me so much pleasure.

Yet, English students’ abilities to be literary critics can be a burden. We have been trained to respond to what we read, and hence feel that we are offending our literary prowess if we fall short of this. To read a book in mental passivity, even if we have enjoyed it, becomes some sort of guilty pleasure. Moreover, while studying literature has opened up new experiences for me, it has excluded me from other books by rendering them one-dimensional and unsatisfying. What we may label as ‘light reading’ or ‘chick lit’ simply doesn’t provide the rich experience to gratify my probing literary brain. Such texts fall short of the intricate web and complex layers my studies have made me accustomed to, leaving these books to be, quite simply, boring.

So, yes, I may have become a bit of a book snob and prevented myself from finding pleasure in certain texts. However, when I think about all that I have gained, the battle is won hands-down. As an English student, I have not killed pleasurable reading. Admittedly, I have made it more complex and multi-dimensional, but it is this density that leaves me just as happy as that toddler reading Julia Donaldson eighteen years ago.