On Reading Goals and Reading Women

“Portrait of Katie Lewis,” Edward Burne-Jones (1886)

“Portrait of Katie Lewis,” Edward Burne-Jones (1886)

Generally speaking, I love goal-setting and resolutions. I find it useful to think about my life in manageable chunks (calendar year, school year, individual semesters). When so much of my work in academia is basically progress by attrition, reflection in manageable sections is key. It’s no surprise that one month into the new year, I’ve still been thinking a lot about the books I read in 2018 and those I want to read in 2019.

I’ve always been reticent about “to-be read” lists and reading challenges. I usually set a general goal for a number of books to read for a year, because otherwise I run the risk of just forgetting to read for pleasure. In the past, I also set monthly reading lists and challenges, in an attempt to get to the bottom of my never-ending physical and metaphorical to-be-read list.

However, a year ago, setting lists suddenly became stifling. I started to feel pressured by a sense that I “should” read certain books, and when I didn’t feel in the mood for them, I often abandoned them halfway through and simply stopped reading altogether. So, I spent most of 2018 focusing on allowing my instincts to guide me toward what I was interested in, and to my surprise, found my instincts only wanted to read books by women.

In the spirit of not setting goals, I didn’t intentionally only read books by women in 2018. I just picked books I was dying to read. Some were classics that recently sparked interest – like Simone de Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay – and others were much-hyped new releases – like Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under. In terms of genre, I read widely. In terms of publication date, I read widely. But every time I went to pick up a new book, I found myself gravitating towards books by women.

This pattern shouldn’t be wholly surprising to me, as I’m a feminist and I’m interested in the subject of gender academically. I’ve always read about women and cherished the work of many female authors. Nevertheless, I would not have consciously set out in 2018 to only read women. I would have imagined it as a limiting factor, counterintuitive to the need for literary freedom I was craving. But by reading intuitively, I discovered an organic pattern of what stories I needed. I was also reminded that women write broadly, and that the stories women have to tell are rich.

Not to say I didn’t start books by men, but I was deeply unmotivated to finish them. It forced me to once again reflect on why I chose the books I chose to read. The books I put down included Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (urged by a long-time friend, as it is his favourite book) and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (I read through all of Beauvoir’s fiction and was still craving some existentialism). These books, for one reason or another, were books I felt I should read, because of their presumed greatness. Largely, they were books that carried with them the hallowed weight of perceived male excellence.

This whole experience made me reflect on the culture of reading I had surrounded myself with. I realised that despite my very best efforts, I had not left behind the pretentious smugness of my youth that came with reading “classics.” I was still trying to force myself to read books that bored me, that were the books that people “should” read to be “cultured” – never mind the racial, gendered, and class implications that come with an idea like that. In my year of unintentionally reading only women, I was reminded that reading should be a pleasurable pastime, a way of connecting to stories beyond our daily lives. It is not – or at least, shouldn’t be – a status marker or an association with intelligence.

Now, early into 2019, I have retained the goal of reading instinctively. I want to let my mood and my literary cravings dictate what I read. But also, I want to continue to deconstruct the literary biases in my reading. I want to question why I consider certain books “Great” before ever even picking them up. I want to examine why I still subconsciously associate reading books from the traditional Western canon as a sign of superiority as well as the gendered, racial, and classist implications. I want to read intuitively and consciously.

Photo by Vesna Curlic

Photo by Vesna Curlic

Vesna Curlic is a graduate student in History, examining domesticity in the Victorian psychiatric asylum. Her interests include mystery novels, dinner parties, and everyday luxury.