I had a completely different, idealistic picture of what it would look like to be an English major long before I actually became one. As a bookworm and hobbyist writer it was easy to romanticise the idea. The urge of a literature student to tuck thick, second-hand books under their arm is second only to the desire to be that token show-off on the train with a book instead of a smartphone. I used to think that this reading-induced superiority complex would only grow stronger as I started college. Instead, it appears to have been squeezed out of me by the accompaniment of lengthy reading lists.
Never did I imagine myself plagued by reading burnout: the stress of constantly feeling behind as the reading flow refuses to ever stop or slow down. Of course, I did expect a lot of reading – the term literature gave it away. What I did not expect was to become so overwhelmed by it. No matter how much reading is achieved, there is always more to follow.
A week with one too many nights out can have you behind for a while. Another frequent choice to consider is whether to spend too much money on books you might not fully finish, or to sacrifice your eyes to hours of sketchily sourced digital copies of texts. Then there is the frustration of rereading the same page of a book because you keep losing focus, and of putting books down to continue later only to inconveniently forget they exist. Let us not omit that little defeat of resorting to desperately studying summaries before the odd tutorial. English literature is a course that will leave you consistently behind.
I faced the biannual English student experience over Christmas break of promising myself that this semester I would keep on top of all of my reading, for my own sake more than anything else. However, immediately into the start of the second semester it was discovered that one of the senior fresher modules this year involves weekly comparative reading – with most weeks requiring the reading of not one, but two texts to both read fully, analyse and compare.
No matter how much reading is achieved, there is always more to follow
Understandably, reading guilt is not something that we English students are unfamiliar with, in all or any of its different forms. It would not be a stretch to suggest that many of us decided to study this course because reading was one of our most frequent and beloved hobbies. Unfortunately, reading for fun becomes a little more complicated when you have a pile of mandatory texts looking for your attention. A relaxing, simple task that you never used to put much thought into doing – and one that likely convinced you to pursue English as a field of study – now comes laden with an intense reading responsibility that forces you to watch the activity you once loved become a chore.
Prescribed reading for your course is very different from reading for fun or relaxation. Sometimes reading for pleasure in your spare time just does not seem to work anymore. Quite often your mind will start reminding you about the other, more demanding reading you ought to be doing at that precise moment. Reading a book in your spare time is slightly dampened by the dreaded hours of re-reading and analysing you have to do afterwards. Not only that, but the habit of analysing literature transfers to texts you try to read for light entertainment rather than study. Try to read for leisure as an English student is to find yourself paying a bit too much critical attention to hidden political layers of a novel you had no intention to start unpacking during your lunch break. The struggle to separate course texts from your personal reading hit list can be a surprisingly blurry line to navigate at times.
On top of these other factors, there is a certain feeling of having to read a certain “quality” or type of book when studying literature. There exists an expectation that English literature students should be reading only texts such as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre in their spare time – and certainly not reading (or rereading) Twilight. The pressure that arises from the amount of reading we have to get through – heavy, difficult reading at that – combined with the pressure to read the “right” kind of literature in our spare time makes it understandable how some of us have developed a subtle subconscious link between reading and stress.
Course texts forever piling up to get through, texts we have been meaning to read in our spare time for ages gathering dust on the shelf, the guilt of not reading all the books we have bought and also guilt when we do read them in preference over course texts. It is true that we should dedicate a lot of our time to course readings, but it is also true that we should put aside time for consciously separate reading or writing that we can enjoy in the way we want, as lightly or critically as we feel like. Accepting that we might never truly catch up might even be a healthy thing sometimes, and if you ever feel like you’re the only one struggling, know that that is almost definitely not the case. Most importantly remember that after all, we only need to hang on for a few more weeks. And if this article is the only thing you read in its entirety today then that practically counts as college work.