By Andrew Kuznetsov
I begin with a litany of questions: Why do we share our experiences of reading? What can a book I have read say about me? What can a book I want to read, maybe intend to read but never will actually read, say about me? If we identify with a book’s characters or see our own personal or moral likeness represented in its content, and for that reason feel compelled to enjoy, share, recommend, our reading lists to others, are our shelves just the product of narcissism? Are they not simply shrines to ourselves? Is sharing therefore a medium for the propagation of our own self-image? Posed differently, is every chapter read no more than a dose of serotonin that propels our interminable desire for a sense of accomplishment, in the name of some progress? Keeping these questions in mind, how do we, or can we, choose what to read? Can we come to enjoy reading texts that do not reflect or even negate our image, finding pleasure in the challenge of suspending our disbelief? Does anybody even have the time?
In view of these morally debilitating questions, I choose to approach with little seriousness (or, with minimal expectations) the act of reading—as is made loud and clear by the form of my shelfie. It is not a shelf, but a reading list à la library.berkeley.edu tab. It is not a have-read, but a will-read (full of un-reads), so none of these tabs can indicate anything more about me than the spaces of my own ignorance I hope to clear up. It is a floodgate, collecting or unleashing my selective ignorance—some of these tabs have become permanent fixtures of my web browsing experience, while others have had the lifespan of a mayfly, eliminated with a click of a button and a backhanded truth: Reading this at any point would not be worth the 500 square pixels it will occupy on my computer screen. The absence of certain tabs after deletion is an ominous void of the ignorance I condone.
Well, such is my “shelfie”. It catalogs nothing but intent, but perhaps this is because, as of now, I do not have the physical and mental space for anything but intent. My paperbacks are already overflowing from the desk in my tenement triple, the infinity-pound box of books from home I mailed myself at the beginning of this year now lies upside down beneath my desk, and my backpack is rarely graced by any book that has not been assigned to me for class. I am apprehensive to address the reality of the fact that I accumulate readings in Google Chrome tabs, only to defer them until whatever next moment I’ll be able to read hundreds of unassigned pages for any class; a moment unlikely to occur anytime before this upcoming summer, at which point I will check-out whatever number of books, renew them shamelessly for three months straight, and read them in peace.
I do not know to what extent I can feel indignant about these circumstances; changing them is completely within my control; I certainly have some critical thinking to do about my priorities: the choice I have made to read for class first and for myself second. On one hand, this hierarchy of work over pleasure is unsettling for the sentimental vision of committed reading as escapism. If my readings are assigned, where is my agency in this escape? How can revelation originate from obedience? The assigned reader is thus reduced to an academic poser. Yet, despite the injustice of assigning reading to the independent reader, there is something to be said about the ability of literature courses (otherwise known as very well coordinated, university-sanctioned book clubs), to orient literature as social phenomenon (through the assign readings) by putting many readers on the same page—literally. Following a syllabus eliminates the “Have you read?”s, the “No? Oh…okay, well, it’s really cool”, the “I should really reread”s , and the “It’s been so long I may as well have never even read it,” so typical of bad conversations by hopeful readers of literature. In the sense that course assignments take discussion beyond the question of “Have you read X?” possible, reading for work can be reading for pleasure, a pleasure of sharing which is in many cases inaccessible to the solitary reader. In other words, everything is fine. Reading is reading, and everybody does what they can.
To conclude this set of thoughts, I would like to turn to the seriousness with which we approach literature, or the seriousness that we feel we should approach literature with, is part of a larger self-conscious illusion of the nobility of literature, or of art in general. Pressure to alter the experience of reading (in whatever trivial ways—such as my digitally/deferredly constructed reading list), comes from a misguided focus on the self. Based on misunderstandings of the processes of creating literature, tropes elevating the act of reading really serve to elevate the self into the noble heights of literature, mirroring the assumed sincerities and greatness of the authors. But really, reading according to elevating guidelines is about as noble to me as googling “bugs with short lifespans” is noble in order to include a metaphor about a mayfly in this blog post. Let us not overestimate the sincerity of those who create art or teach us about it! Let us not alter our style of reading but our misguided insecurities. Perhaps there is a model for taking reading seriously without taking yourself seriously, one in which the sincerity of reading has little to do with the reflection of literature on a reader. Because this is really all so silly, I resolve to expect very little and feel no guilt for my sorry, sorry set of dream-deferred tabs which scoff so nicely at these crises of reading authenticity.