Reading closely for pleasure

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During my childhood weekends, I delved deeply into my books from the moment I woke up until bedtime. I was thoroughly smitten with the omnipotent “Pippi Longstocking,” Roald Dahl’s magical worlds and the clever mysteries of detective novels. 

However, as my free time dwindled, I gradually stopped reading for pleasure. 

I only read at school. Reading became a technical feat — a means to an end. Reading was about extracting information to apply to improve myself. Reading was about completing school assignments and writing essays.

When I read for school, it felt like a robotic maneuver, skimming over text only to extract the perfect quotes for an argumentative essay or book report. 

I struggled to remain engaged during a 40-minute classroom discussion on the symbolic significance of why the sky was blue. I felt that we were magnifying the text to a fault. Did everything need to have meaning? Did we have to think so hard?

So, after high school started, I stopped reading fiction outside of school and bought into the self-help book culture. Reading self-help books gave me a false sense that I was improving myself, even though I rarely applied or internalized the ideals they preach. 

When I got burnt out on self-help books, I realized that the love for reading I’d had as a child did not follow me into my adult life. I wondered what I was doing wrong. People who read a lot always impress me because it seems hard to make time for reading in today’s busy lifestyle. 

In summer 2019, I asked a friend if she was participating in Goodreads’ annual reading challenge. She told me that she didn’t care about reading 50 books a year. Instead, she explained that she reads what is joyful to her at the pace she wants. That conversation inspired me to rethink what reading means to me. I wanted to cultivate a renewed, joyful reading habit.

This past spring, I decided it was a perfect opportunity to start a book club as the pandemic canceled many of my activities. Despite all of the uncertainties of the pandemic, coupled with the challenges of virtual community building, my book club persevered and stayed active. 

We’ve read more than 10 books in the past year, from essay collections by Joan Didion to fiction by Bernardine Evaristo. We just wrapped up “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and now we are reading “Klara and the Sun.”

Beyond the stories we’ve enjoyed, we’ve cultivated a warm community that is welcoming and supportive. Through book club, I brought people from different corners of my life together: close friends, classmates, friends of friends and even strangers on Reddit.

In the beginning, my goal for the book club was focused on finishing as many books as possible. Quantity symbolized intellectual accomplishment and seemed to signify the productivity of the group. I quickly realized many of our members could not keep up with a brisk reading pace on top of their other commitments. Thus, I lowered our reading pace and rescheduled our discussions to be biweekly instead of weekly.

Running a book club has been a dream. It combines so many of my favorite things: stories, community and reflection. I always feel incredibly excited to be at our book club meetings because the discussions are engaged, thoughtful and fun.

My Chinese literature professor once told me that reading closely is about savoring the text and enjoying yourself. I compared it to eating more mindfully — chewing slowly, feeling the texture, noticing the colors and smelling the scent. Reading closely is about creating a more pleasurable experience for yourself.

We read stories and reflect them to each other and ourselves. We put ourselves in the character’s shoes and debate the pros and cons of each decision. We look for foreshadowing and make elaborate guesses as to what happens next. We empathize with characters, justifying why things happen. 

Reading has pushed me to be a more empathetic individual and sensitive to the world’s textures. Stories allow us to connect to a shared humanity and remind us that we are all just figuring things out. 

During our book discussions and socials, I’ve also gotten to know the different members intimately. We talk about love, dreams, despair, relationships, conflicts and everything in between. The discussions age like wine, each time more fruitful as we become more invested in each other as individuals. Our discussions both validate and challenge my ideals as I grow and learn from others. Blossoming from the book club, new communities form as our members meet up outside to attend trivia nights, study financial literacy or share delicious food. 

Running a book club and being able to engage in frequent close discussions of literature has transformed my everyday life. Exposure to a diverse array of stories has allowed me to know different parts of the world. It has also allowed me to feel more understood or seen through different characters and their journeys. 

The pandemic has been a tough year for all of us, and it’s been especially challenging to stay involved with meaningful social communities. The book club has allowed UC Berkeley students, new and old, to connect in an authentic and purposeful manner. I am proud of creating and sustaining this community.

Shuge Luo writes the Wednesday column on creativity and belonging. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.