English Literature Degrees: Does Studying Books Ruin Your Relationship with Them?

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash.

by Alice Friel.

For a book lover, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of complete submersion in a fictional world. Hours seem to pass like minutes as you greedily turn the pages, excited to discover more. We all have our favourite spot where we like to curl up with infinite cups of tea, content to pass whole days unmoving until you’ve finished your current read. As an English Literature graduate, currently studying for a MA in Communications, this is a feeling I’ve been desperate to reconcile with.  

Before I started my undergraduate degree, my family used to joke that if the house was on fire, I’d have to finish the chapter before evacuating. Reading was a part of my identity and always the go-to answer when someone asked me what my favourite thing to do was. But now, my relationship with reading is a complicated one. I feel more connected to literature than ever before but, at the same time, picking up a book can feel like a chore. My post-degree reading habits have been sporadic and I can feel restless when I do manage to find the time to read. Frequently, I’ve caught my mind wandering or my eyes flitting down to the bottom of the page to check how much I’ve read in the last five minutes. For a while, I couldn’t understand why I was so disenchanted. I thought I’d lost my love for literature which was something I’d felt was impossible. Could studying English Literature really have changed how I felt about something that I used to rely on so heavily as a teenager? 

I think the answer to this question is yes. Studying English Literature can greatly alter your approach to reading. You have to become a critic. You have to look beyond your inexplicable love for your favourite poem and sit for hours on end writing essays about its structure and form, picking it apart until you’ve got nothing left to say about it. Don’t get me wrong, writing on a topic that you really care about is extremely fulfilling. Studying literature allows you to explore issues relating to culture, gender, race, history and so much more. There were modules and texts that constantly reminded me why I chose to study the subject. But there were many factors that made me sit and stare at the book in front of me, urging myself to muster up that same feeling of immersion that always came so naturally. 

Firstly, I knew I was going to have to read books that I wouldn’t have personally chosen, but I swear my tutors sometimes chose the driest literature ever written in the English language. This may anger some, but you will never convince me that The Canterbury Tales is an interesting read. Every page of that text felt like I was sitting a foreign language exam which definitely detracts from the plot’s appeal. Secondly, the speed at which I had to read in order to even scratch the surface of the current week’s reading list meant that sometimes I hardly had time to even notice what I was reading. A bit dramatic of me, but when the clock is ticking and you’re behind on the essential reading for three different modules, it really does take the fun out of it. Before university, reading offered me escapism but I found myself having to find other hobbies to escape from reading. 

What’s more, English students tend to be very vocal about what they consider ‘good’ literature. I’d never felt so self-conscious about my taste and I’ve come to realise that I began to read books I felt I should read, rather than one’s I actually wanted to. Even during the summer breaks, when the whole point is to unwind after a stressful academic year, I forced myself to struggle through novels that didn’t particularly interest me just so that I felt I was reading something productive and respectable. I’ve now come to realise this was an absolute waste of time and all that matters is that I allow myself to enjoy literature. And if I occasionally want to read a cheesy, lovey-dovey romance novel then why not? Just because I enjoy the odd easy read doesn’t mean I don’t also love the Bronte sisters or Virginia Woolf. I’ve just come to realise that sometimes I need to give my brain a rest and that’s okay. 

It’s now been nearly eight months since I finished my undergrad and I finally feel like I’m repairing my relationship with literature. For a long time, reading felt like work and who honestly enjoys working? But now, enough time has passed that I’m reading for pleasure again. I finish a day of lectures and sit down with a cuppa and a book. I don’t know if it was the distance I’ve since created from my studies or if all it took was that one special novel to catalyse the feeling of excitement that had become so foreign. But now I’m eager to read intuitively and allow myself to discover new literature that I actually want to spend my free time exploring. But I’d say I’m living proof that if studying English Literature ruined your relationship with reading, then it’s not permanent. Your relationship could just do with a little break.