During my years in college, I always felt a little embarrassed by the fact that I did very little reading for fun while in school.
Part of my lack of extracurricular reading was due to the fact that I was just busy. I actually paid a good deal of my own tuition by working several jobs. I was also a sucker for volunteering because being involved was the only way I could feel like I was actually taking part in the campus community. I took an active role in improving my physical health, with a regular exercise regimen that I stayed faithful to for my time in school. Needless to say, my spare time was virtually nonexistent.
I suffered from a horrible case of imposter syndrome. I was a Black kid who grew up in Compton, CA. While my parents did their best to make sure I had access to opportunity, there were things that my wealthier classmates had access to that I just didn’t. I lacked the resources that many of them had. Still, I excelled academically in my youth.
By the time I was in 6th grade, my reading level was at college level. I gobbled up the reading material offered to my classmates and myself. I once earned the ire of a teacher when I had completed a book the day it was assigned to us. Even with excelling academically, I didn’t have access to a library or bookstore nearby that could help me fully explore my reading potential.
Nevertheless, my love of books was strong. My elementary and middle school did not have the reading material to accommodate my reading level. So, my mom found another way. After discovering that local library options were dismal, we went to one that was a good 20 minute drive away. To complicate matters further, there were no bookstores nearby. Thus, the bookstore we frequented was even further than the library.
Books were a treat. They were my rewards for good behavior and excellent grades. Books were my birthday and Christmas gifts. If my parents wanted to compensate me for anything, books were always the payment.
I devoured books by the week, meticulously breaking them down and digesting them without rest. It was an insatiable hunger that was never satisfied. The more I read, the hungrier I became.
My books took over the house, and often were donated or put away in our decaying detached garage where they were often ruined. I had not gotten my own room until I was 16 years old. Only then was I able to keep all of my books close to me. Even now, as they overcrowd my bookshelves, I can hardly bear to part with any of them.
Going to college out of state was a challenge for me. I found myself 857 miles away from home. At home, I was fortunate enough to have a close knit immediate family and an intimate crew of friends who shared my interests. I had always lived in very diverse settings and even went to high school at California’s most diverse secondary school. The library there wasn’t too bad, but at that point there were few reading options available to challenge me.
This was a direct contrast to the conditions at college. The school was not very diverse, and while I made many great friends there, there was always a lingering disconnect. While there, I often wondered if I was doing something wrong because many of my classmates, particularly the males, boasted about all of these different “important” books they some how found the time to read, whereas all I could find time to do was my course work. As with any educational setting, there was rampant elitism, which is to be expected. I felt that, in order to be connected, I needed to do more.
The workload was intense for all of us, but I had convinced myself that I was the only one who had a hard time finding time for extracurricular reading. Everyone else seemed to be getting by okay. My college had a set program where students follow the Western canon of Great Books in chronological order. The education was truly invigorating, but also immensely difficult at times.
Also, my college had the greatest library and bookstore that I had ever had access to. I had finally found the library of my dreams.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel as though my tastes weren’t sophisticated enough to deserve being there. I really wanted to make a connection with my classmates. I always felt like I was a bit of a phony because there were authors on the program whose names I couldn’t even pronounce, let alone knew existed. The only author I could claim a real familiarity with was Shakespeare, whom I had been reading since elementary school. There were other overlaps, but none that I was prepared to have in depth discussions about without preparation.
I threw myself into my school work, determined to make up for my “deficiency” in order to be able to feel comfortable socially. In my pursuit to “catch up,” I really lost my once ravenous hunger for reading. I forced myself to dive head first into the Program, embracing the uncharted territory.
In the midst of all of this, I found that there were a great many books that I did enjoy. My own library evolved from the same few authors, into a broad expanse that still has room to grow. As a student, I excelled and approached topics I would have shied away from previously. I wasn’t a “phony” anymore.
Yet, the mindset of inferiority had put a real damper on my love of reading. I put so much pressure on myself to conform to a preconceived notion of what I “needed” to read, that I was making the overall experience unsatisfying.
My hunger was starting to quell under the pressure, but still I forced myself to carry on without reprieve.
I stopped reading altogether when school finished. I could not even so much as touch a short story. I really struggled to overcome this reading drought, trying to force myself to read again, but falling short. During this dry period, I taught myself that it was a waste of time to worry about what people thought about the books I read.
It took five months before I was able to read for enjoyment again. I read five books in the span of a month. Though my pursuit lost me my appetite, my time at college had expanded my literary interests and helped me develop my palate. I no longer gravitated towards the same old types of books, and in many cases found my old tastes to be bland and formulaic. I was able to explore worlds written by women and people of color that I had not before. My tastes had matured, and my curiosity had strengthened.
I believe that the intellectual struggle I faced in college was a necessary one. It helped me developed a confidence of self, as well as an awareness that I had lacked before. Others at the table having access to things that were unavailable to me did not negate my right to have a seat at the table. I had just as much insight to offer in areas to which they may not have had access. It was a matter of having faith in my own abilities, and my own mind.
My insecurity reached a breaking point, but that in turn help me grow into a more positive person. I am not so quick to doubt myself or the power and potential of my own intellect. Still, I recognize that my pursuit is not yet complete, and so I read. And I read. And I read.
And I read.
(Cross posted from my Medium account.)