The Reader’s Guilt

Okay, picture this: you’re walking down the street on a day like any other and you spot from the other side of the road a bookshop. Or even worse: a second-hand bookshop that has books for less than three pounds. Your feet start to drag you there almost unconsciously and you are not completely sure about what’s happening but when you walk out of the shop you have three more books in your possession and a couple fewer bucks. You somehow convinced yourself that you had to read this Russian novel that you vaguely heard someone talk about and this other book about Parisian architecture that will change your life and of course this classic Regency-era novel that you have had on your Goodreads to-read list for a while. You’re thinking that if the stack of neglected books in your nightstand could express emotion it would be “pretty disappointed in you”. And now you feel guilt: not even done with books you already own, and you already replaced them. Some may call it “reader’s guilt”.   

This guilt does not come from spending money on useless things: those three books probably cost you less than ten pounds. No, that’s not the point. You somehow have fallen under the impression that books must be read linearly and that if you start a book in January, it must be finished before buying a new book in February. But let me tell you a secret: it’s all an illusion. There are no rules when it comes to hobbies. Yes, there are rules in volleyball and football, but those are team activities and goal-oriented sports. Reading is supposed to be something we enjoy on our own with no other objective than to enjoy ourselves (and maybe learn something). And although we may not always read pleasurable things, we must make reading pleasurable, for our own sake. Who cares if you bought a new book instead of finishing one that you are clearly not enjoying? If we start to follow illogical rules that we did not create, then we are inevitably limiting our enjoyment. I believe that we shouldn’t limit our hobbies to fall within strict, non-logical guidelines. It is not your job to read a book compliantly just because you started it (unless it’s for academic purposes). 

Our time is a valuable thing, not every book is going to appeal to us, and that’s fine! Other ways in which ‘reader’s guilt’ may manifest could be in the reluctance to give books away. You probably won’t read that anthology of French poems, but what if? The question keeps you up at night. We also feel uneasy reading only extracts instead of the entire book, then maybe the book only has three good chapters.  You will label as barbaric anyone who marks their books and writes on them. And maybe you will avoid publicising that you indeed read certain genres of literature deemed as less intellectual (such as romance or fanfiction).  

I want to help other people break out of the rigid rules that the reader’s guilt enforces. But to do that, we must reflect upon what makes this guilt appear. It might be from the belief that if these books were successful or well-liked by our peers, we must like them as well. But books and literature as a form of art are also influenced by our subjectivity and our own views of what art and “good art” should be. And this demonstrates that in literature there is no one size fits all. Another reason might be the imaginary ideal of “the good reader” who reads voraciously, without tarnishing their physical copies and always has something to say in the book club about what they just read. Sometimes all I can say about a book is “Wow, I really loved it and I love the characters”, and that’s okay. We don’t have to write an essay about each book that we like or dislike. If you want to, you can obviously do so, but it’s not a requirement for you to be a good reader.  

And I guess what we really need is practical solutions to this: trick our brain into not feeling this guilt that makes us stop enjoying things we actually love. I, for instance, have changed my New Year’s Resolution and instead of “Read more” it now says, “Read more of what you like”. I want to live by these words. I love reading, and I want to continue doing so. The next coherent step to do it is to continue reading things I honestly enjoy. What gives you the membership card to the reader’s club is not reading more, faster or reading more boring (supposedly thought-challenging) books. What allows you entry to the reader’s club is simply the act of reading. So simply do that: read the world away. 

[Eva Lopez-Lopez, she/her, @evac_ ]

[Photo credit: Emre Can]

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