When desire isn't sufficient

This post comes out of a facebook question posed by some humanists from my PhD-granting institution about leisure reading. The question: “Do you read for pleasure, and if so, why and how?” And the question-behind-the-question: “How do you continue to read for fun when your job is reading? And what happens if you feel like you don’t, anymore? Can you get it back?”

I was struck by how many academics, in replying to these posts, reported having lost some or all of their ability to pleasure-read, even if a love for books was what brought them to the academy in the first place. I can’t speak for their experiences, but my own answer to this question was revealing to me, about me. Since it might be useful to others, I felt like it would be worth reposting and expanding a bit. 

CW for discussion of eating disorders below the cut.

 A cake I made in graduate school. "Middlemartians," get it?

A cake I made in graduate school. "Middlemartians," get it?

Like many people who go on to get a PhD in literature, I read voraciously when I was young—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, everything. But also like many, my reading mostly stopped in graduate school, especially as I gained a specialization (Romantic literature) and began my dissertation.

The simple explanation is this: I stopped because I felt anxious and guilty over reading anything not directly to my work—which, for a historicist like me, meant anything outside of the Romantic era or Romantic-era criticism.

The more complicated explanation is that my anxieties about reading resembled, in some striking ways, my anxieties about food. I’ve had an eating disorder since high school (I’m doing better now, but it was pretty bad until about halfway through graduate school. Maybe I’ll write about that sometime). The ED scarred my relationship with food. For a very long time, I could only eat by creating mental categories that made it “ok” to eat certain foods at certain times: sweets were “ok” at celebrations; fruit was “ok” because it wasn’t processed sugar; a big meal was “ok” if I worked out to compensate. Each stray calorie warranted some sort of rationale, otherwise I was not allowed it. The overall goal of these categories was to keep me from eating: not merely too much, but also and maybe more importantly too freely—to keep me from eating simply because I wanted to. My own desire was not a sufficient justification, so I came up with others.

In the same way, during graduate school, I created mental categories to organize my non-work-related reading. As with eating, these categories were aimed at justifying my leisure reading—attaching an explanation that made each book (like each calorie) “ok,” because I believed that otherwise, I was “not allowed” to have it. In the same way I did not think my own desire a sufficient cause for eating something I wanted to eat, I did not think it sufficient for reading something I wanted to read. So I told myself that “trashy” books “didn’t count” as reading and so were “ok”; canonical literary books were important to my development as a scholar and so were “ok”; and nonfiction books were not about literature, had no bearing on me a scholar, and so were “ok.” Tellingly, the category that I had the hardest time justifying to myself was literature, by which I simply mean anything I found especially beautiful or meaningful. For example, no justification I could find allowed for reading non-Romantic poetry—ironic, since I love poetry and entered the academy in the first place to write about it. It was as if the more deeply I had the potential to love a book, the more I desired it, the more dangerous and irrelevant it was and the less I should be able to have it. Poetry was the peanut butter of leisure reading.

There’s a shared, if twisted, logic at play here. It’s often said that EDs are about control: you control what you eat when you feel like you can’t control anything else. Mine was (/is) also about controlling my identity. If I presented to people as skinny, it confirmed the image of discipline and dedication I wanted to project; more importantly, controlling my food reaffirmed to myself that I had those qualities. The culture of graduate school—and academia more generally—prizes discipline and dedication, and so exerted a similar pressure on me. A tangible way of proving my commitment to scholarship was controlling my intellectual life so as to exclude those things that might suggest my dedication was anything less than total. In the same way that refusing a donut at a potluck illustrated my willpower and control over my desire to eat, reading Jane Eyre on vacation instead of a fantasy novel illustrated my work ethic, my control over my desire to read outside my scholarly remit.

That remit was, of course, an illusion, for both eating and reading. It was an arbitrary line I drew in the sand because I felt my desires were only valuable insofar as I could mark where they ended. It was not only my line, though. I say “arbitrary,” but growing up I learned very well, even if I was never expressly told, why it was bad for women to desire food; going through graduate school I learned very well, even if I was never expressly told, what dedication looked like—and why it was lazy to be anything less than totally dedicated.

I could go on, but because I want this to be a short post, I’ll move on to the hopeful ending:

I am now in a space where I am beginning to heal from my ED and my reading-ED. They have been very similar processes. Both have involved learning to hear and respect my desires. For the ED, this means listening to my body and feeding it what it is hungry for. In the same way, in my leisure reading, I have been trying to feed my brain what it craves. I am trying to let my desires be valuable, and therefore sufficient. It’s still very much a work-in-progress. But it’s also been incredibly freeing. Relearning how to read for pleasure has been, in large part, remembering that the reason I’m a literature scholar in the first place is because I love beautiful writing. I’ve realized that just as my body craves healthy, nourishing food as well as delicious sweets, so my brain craves literature as well as fun trash and nonfiction. And it’s honestly been the best thing in the world, not least because it’s allowed me to relax the iron control I’d exercised over my identity. I’ve found so many new-to-me things I love, and they have nothing to do with Romanticism, and it’s great. I’m reading poetry again for pleasure; I’m buying poets I love again because I want to read them before bed. And I’m expanding my taste beyond what I thought I was “allowed” by my discipline—yes, this Romanticist is allowed to love urbane 20th-century formalists; yes, this sci-fi fantasy fan is allowed to like psychological realism; yes, I am allowed to consume new and different things, simply because I want to. And not only am I allowed to, it’s good.

I’ve still got a long way to go. But it’s a start—the reading equivalent of letting myself eat peanut butter every day.

Which, I’m happy to report, I do.