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  • Writer's picture The Vindicator

God, I Miss Books. (I’m Majoring in Books.)

Commiserating over the barriers between college students and leisure reading.

Written by Benvolio Nichols

I’ve worked out of the same reading journal since high school. It’s a habit I keep up from my days of summer reading at the local library. I write down the title and author of every book I read on my own time — that is to say, books that weren’t assigned reading for a class — and keep a running count for the year. According to my barely-legible notes, I read 160 books in 2018 (10th-11th grade). Last year, I was fighting for my life to finish 16. 

"For me, coping with the changes in my reading life has meant shifting my perspective."

I’m a graduating senior with two on-campus jobs, multiple student org commitments and an active social life. I know what happened. It’s the same thing happening to so many of our peers, across the humanities and STEM. 

I spoke with CSU students who describe themselves as lifelong readers. “I would do the summer reading programs at my local libraries and I would finish the little ‘game boards’ they had within, like, two weeks,” junior chemistry major Audrey Stratton remembered. Dale Jackson, a senior computer engineering major, shared a childhood story of reading the popular post-apocalyptic YA thriller “The Maze Runner” so late into the night that their mom took notice. “She got mad at me and threatened to ground me from reading if I didn't stop reading past bedtime! I just think it's funny to think that I'm the type of person that almost got grounded from reading.” Sadly, like me, both Jackson and Stratton have seen their time and enthusiasm for literature waning through the years.

“Reading for pleasure,” “leisure reading,” “voluntary reading” — whatever you call the time you spend with books you choose to read, college students are doing less of it. A September 2023 article for the Virginia Commonwealth University student newspaper reported that “Nearly half of college-aged people don’t read for pleasure.” VCU student interviewees attribute this decline mostly to time spent on social media like TikTok, but most college students face a more immediate barrier: our coursework. 

It isn’t that college students are simply choosing the brighter, shinier alternative to reading books. More often than not, our classes leave us no time to choose in the first place. In a 2011 study of the student body at Gustavus Adolphus College, when asked to describe the barriers that kept them from reading for fun, 77% of students responded that they “already ha[d] enough reading for class.” 

Let’s say that I study for two hours outside class for every hour of class time. With a 12-credit-hour courseload, that’s 24 hours, for a 36-hour total — adding up to nearly the same time commitment as a full-time job. That’s assuming I face no roadblocks; challenging material, exam prep or major projects could all easily take longer than general recommendations suggest. Many CSU students take on 15- to 18-credit-hour schedules. More than that, we haven’t even considered the demands on the time of students who work part-time or full-time, or care for family members, on top of trying to keep up with class readings.

It’s no wonder we can’t read for fun.

Even when college students have an hour — realistically, half an hour — to step away from our classes, the stress might still creep into our leisure time. “Sometimes, reading for pleasure reminds me too much of reading for school,” Stratton said. “I feel like I’m wasting my time reading when I should be doing homework.”

My weekly reading load last fall came out to about 250 pages. Reading the page count of a novel every week — as an English major, often literally — drains my energy to finish or even open any of the books accumulating library fines on my nightstand. This loss lands even sharper knowing that a love of literature is what brought me to my field of study. 

Sonny Truax, one of my longtime peers as a senior creative writing major, shared his similar experience as a burnt-out reader. “I’ll watch YouTube videos of book reviews, but the idea of sitting down to read seems impossible even when I want to,” he said. Fortunately, creative writing coursework affords some built-in time with a wide variety of literature. “Classes that require reading and writing can give me inspiration to do some reading and writing on my own time, when the reading load isn’t overwhelming.” 

For me, coping with the changes in my reading life has meant shifting my perspective. Looking ahead to my (ideal) future as a grad student, then a doctoral candidate and finally a working adult in academia, I can’t hold myself to 100 books a year for recreation. Clearly, it’s not accurate to say that I only love literature a tenth as much as I used to. Of course I used to check off a novel every other day — because what else did I have to do at twelve, or thirteen, or fourteen? As we take on more responsibilities in emerging adulthood, less of our time is our own; it isn’t an identity crisis or moral failing not to use that time in the ways we could once afford.

At the same time, wistful readers need solutions more actionable than resigning to the state of capitalism and U.S. higher education. This year, Dale Jackson reintroduced reading to their life through audiobooks. Describing himself as a slow reader, Jackson said he had to overcome the idea that listening to audiobooks doesn’t “count” as reading. “But since coming around to reading audiobooks, reading has been easier than ever. What used to take me months to read can be read in a day or two!” Even faster readers can enjoy the benefits of audiobooks alongside activities like their daily commute, meals or household chores. Jackson recommends free digital library services like Libby and Hoopla, which offer access to “more audiobooks than my heart could possibly desire.”

Book clubs and reading groups can also help build reading habits back into your schedule. Jackson participates in a book club hosted through CSU as a collaboration between LGBTQ+ Student Services and TRIO, which has already motivated him to finish one novel and start another this semester. When we struggle as college students to take time for activities that we enjoy, the mild social pressure of reading in a group can be one way to trick ourselves out of fatigue. If none of the book clubs available to you in-person or online offer texts that interest you, choosing a book with one or two friends can still serve as an external motivation to get back into reading.

With spring semester coming to a close, you might take advantage of your break for some summer reading. Don’t expect to do a year’s worth of reading in three months: set goals that match your reading speed and life outside school, like one book for the summer, or one book per month. I’ve lined up a few titles from my four-year backlog to finally enjoy after graduation. Maybe you’ll read some of them along with me. Now the list is in print, so I have to do my reading, right?

Top Five Books I Haven’t Read

  1. “Fledgling” by Octavia E. Butler

  2. “My Heart is a Chainsaw” by Stephen Graham Jones

  3. “In the Form of a Question” by Amy Schneider

  4. “The Tower of Nero” by Rick Riordan

  5. “All the Gay Saints” by Kayleb Rae Candrilli


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