Last June, after submitting my final essay for uni, the final essay of the final year, I sat at the library stupefied. I had dreamt of that day for the last four years. I enjoyed studying a lot (so much I’m in fact considering a postgraduate course), and going back to university was the best decision I ever made, but working full time and studying simultaneously was hard: my social life was at times non-existent, my reading habits were shaped completely by my module choices and I rarely read any books outside the curriculum. And so, I often dreamt of the day when I would finally submit my last paper and walk freely, first to meet my friends and then to embrace my TBR pile. But when it happened, when I clicked the ‘submit’ button and let this last essay go, I was so tired and confused I could not decide whether I was happy or sad. A big part of my life was ending and there weren’t any fireworks or fanfares, just the quiet, subdued library hustle-and-bustle of the students around me who were still working on their deadlines. There were still so many things I wanted to learn from my professors, so many books I wanted to discuss, so many questions I never had a chance to consider… I felt like a helium balloon cut off its string, drifting away in an unknown direction fast but the imminent deflating and fall looming closely.
Wanting to hold on to the life I had known for the last few years I went around the library picking up books I hadn’t had time to read while studying. Plath’s Collected Letters, Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, The Penguin Book of American Short Stories, Ackroyd’s London… I filled my tote bag with them, its weight on my shoulder so familiar, so comforting. At home I put them on the floor close to my bed, my night-stand covered with non-library books I meant to read when I was free, and for the next few days I watched them getting dusty. From time to time I picked them up, flicked through some pages and put them down again. There was no point pretending any more; I had reader’s block.
It wasn’t completely unexpected; every summer between the end of one academic year and beginning of the next one I suffered from it. My ability to read usually came back towards the end of August when the number of books on my reading list was rapidly outgrowing the number of summer days left. Each year I managed to pull through my reader’s block and catch up in the end. But this time, not having another academic year to look forward to, I was worried it would go on for … ever. To be longing for so long for that extra time when you can finally read whatever you want, just to realise that you can’t read at all, is upsetting. As upsetting as getting ill on holidays.
Luckily, on one lethargic Sunday, when I was gathering motivation (rather unsuccessfully) to clean my room from all the papers scattered on the floor and chairs – the remnants of recent exams and deadlines – I got a blog prompt from Stuck in a Book, who I follow because I admire his reviewing style and literary knowledge (and also because he is a great fan of Tove Jansson and any Tove Jansson fan is my friend). In his post he mentioned The Readers, a podcast I never heard of, but which Simon, the Stuck in a Book blogger, made sound irresistible. So, I clicked on the link and listened to the celebratory hundredth episode of The Readers: Book Based Banter. And banter it was indeed, where all three hosts – Simon, Gav and Thomas – were answering fun bookish questions from their listeners. As I listened to their light chat about books, reading habits, and favourite genres, I began sorting out my papers, notes, photocopies, and hand-outs. It felt like saying goodbye to that part of my life, but listening to The Readers made me hopeful. There were reading communities out there and so much more to be discovered! And it was so good to listen to their chat without needing to participate, without feeling guilty for not knowing all the books they talked about. It felt like a visit from school friends when you are off sick when they fill you in on all the gossip you missed. I still couldn’t read for the next two weeks, so instead I listened to the old episodes of The Readers in reversed order from the hundredth episode down (don’t ask me why), and they made me laugh a lot, and they made me think about lots of different books, and I added more books to my TBR pile, and somehow, slowly, my reading block eased. Eventually I picked up a book (84 Charing Cross Road), and read it, but it was none of those I took from the library on the day of my last essay. No, those books got dustier and dustier until I received an email reminder that due to the end of my course my membership was expiring at the end of July and I must return outstanding items. With that email the umbilical cord was cut and I was on my own. It was scary and I didn’t feel ready, and I didn’t want to return those books which were my last connection with uni, with routine, with discipline, with community where I felt safe. But I survived it all and I read more now than ever, and I’m discovering a lot of new bookish blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and shows. I still dream of doing an MA, but I know now that even if I won’t, I will still be able to find people that love reading and talking about books.
So, thank you Simon Thomas and thank you The Readers for helping me get over what I thought would be the worst case of Reader’s Block. And thank you for easing my transition from the safe life of a literary student where the next read is clearly mapped out for you by the teacher, to the life of a person who has to pursue her passion for books alone.