Rediscovering the joy of reading
I’m reading as a way to stay afloat and to spark joy while at it.
Most readers have a profound ‘I-can-see-the-light’ moment when they discover they’ve been sentenced to a life of reading.
Even though I grew up around books - heaps and heaps on the slant dining table, next to the portmanteaux leaning against the cracked walls, tilting on dusty headboards - I had one of those. It was a given that I would become a reader. I had spent years before my magic moment reading almost all the regular children's story books you would find in the average Nigerian bookstore or school curriculum: ‘Koku Baboni’, ‘Ralia the Sugar Girl’, titles by Enid Blytons, and more. My school had a rich library, and we had library hours. On every open day, I would spend my last penny buying books from the booksellers who came with a colourful array of storybooks with cartoonish covers.
When I turned 10, I read my first John Grisham novel - ‘The Street Lawyer.’ I no longer remember if it was a spectacular novel, but I enjoyed it so much that something pleasantly squirmed inside me. Now, it makes me think of licking lollipops with multiple colours and flavours, bursts of sensations filling my mouth. A desire for more and shocked that a book made me feel this way.
That was my moment. Small and yet profound. In the next few years, that moment would inform the kinds of books I read, the career I choose, and eventually, the stories I write.
Several more books followed. I associate a certain kind of hunger pang with reading a good book. I’m so deep in the world that I don’t remember to grab a snack or lunch. I’m so lost in the wonder of this new, senseless (sometimes sensible) world that I don’t see the sun go down, replaced by a blue-black sky. I don’t see. I had this when I binge-read several Sidney Sheldon novels in junior school, and when I read ‘Purple Hibiscus’ for my senior school exams and when I discovered ‘Efuru’ (and so randomly) on my desk in uni.
I remember early conversations with newfound friends about books. We didn’t dwell on merit: purple prose vs beige prose, etc. But on the story and how it made us feel: joy, burning anger, sadness, etc.
Eventually, I became a writer, which adds several layers of complexity to one whose life is dedicated to reading books. As a writer, the one critical piece of advice you might never stop hearing (no matter how incomplete it is) is that to improve your craft, you must read. And in the early stages of my career, that’s all I did. First, passively learning fancy, ‘deep’ words, the writing style of authors whose lyricism and refreshing writing style made me agitated about my skill. Then consciously, by studying the worlds they built and the sentences they crafted to get into their minds and understand what I could do behind the scenes to reproduce equally as elevating prose.
In no time, reading for me became not what I could learn of the story itself as a work of art and reflection of the world but what I could learn of world-building and all the questions any budding writer might have about craft. More recently, I read with a notepad and pencil close by, eager to take notes or underline sentences. Constantly asking myself: what is the value of this book or piece of writing? What might it do to make me more of a better writer than I was yesterday? Which, I must emphasise, isn’t a bad thing. Just an exhausting thing.
Needless to say, after doing this for several years, it becomes a doozy, which is why, after I read ‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’ this past month, I felt like the novel had brought me out of a bubble I didn’t even know I lived in. Because I’m currently in a constant state of exhaustion, I hadn’t gone in expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. Yes, some entertainment but lots of notes on crafting multi-dimensional characters and weaving complex themes in art. Not enjoy as in that squirmy feeling I felt several years ago. ‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’ is a story of a powerful actress who reveals her life’s story (how she made it to the top of her career) and her one true love to a journalist in the novel. I make it sound ordinary, and perhaps, the blurb did make me iffy, but it turned out to be an immersive and pleasant read. All it took was dropping my pencil, curling into a ball and entering into the world.
Growing up takes the joy out of so many things, and it's understandable. We need to work hard so the bills can be paid — somehow! — and if you don’t get good, no one will commission you, so no money, etc. But this small defiance of reading a novel not to stimulate me intellectually, not to understand why Taylor Jenkins Reid started all the sections with a moniker about a husband in the story, not to feel even as though I had to tick some box and say I read ten books this month, made me pause. And every time you wait, you learn something new about yourself, others or the world. Indeed, in not trying to learn actively, I stumbled across this insight I’m sharing with you: sometimes (most times, a lot of times) it pays to read to enjoy, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it (which I did at first.)
In a senior school literature class, the teacher might ask something like: ‘What are the benefits of reading,’ and the student might respond by saying. ‘To escape reality….’ I argue that while you do slip into a different world when you read, it does ground you in your reality the moment you return, giving you a different outlook or a different way to approach the world. For example, with certain feel-good books, you might regain, even for a moment, a sense of wonder that had been kept away. You might interact with strangers with soft, cool fingertips, as opposed to that brashness that comes with living in big cities. Subconsciously, some part of you awakens, and it’s less about: ‘How do I breeze by today?’ and more about: ‘How do I make today exceptional?’ And that’s only a pinch of what might happen when you read for pleasure. There’s so much joy in reading a good book; the more I experience this, the freer and less exhausted I might become.
Only semi-back. Any and all errors can be credited to Grammarly. Have a great weekend ❤️