My Humanities sequence mentors had warned me to bring a friend to pick up my course books, and, like most of their endlessly helpful yet panic-inducing advice, they were correct. I found the 25 books lined up for the fall semester in the dimly lit basement of Labyrinth Books — a far cry from the bright upstairs I now yearned for.
I was excited about the Humanities sequence, I swear — the foundational texts I was promised were now in my hands, ready to be annotated and post-it–noted and sometimes occasionally put off to be read until a few minutes before precept. In all seriousness, though, the range the course covered was awesome, to say the least. I reveled (and still do) in the fact that I would soon be reading texts like Plato’s “Republic” in conversation with those of Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison.
Still, as I emerged from the desolate land of coursebooks and assigned reading, I couldn’t help but glance longingly at the shimmering new releases that covered the walls of Labrinyth’s upstairs. As much as I love the guy, Plato just doesn’t compare to Sally Rooney’s newest installation of depressed-brunette-takes-on-Ireland. Zadie Smith’s “Intimations” called my name as I Iugged my Humanities sequence books up to the counter. I stalled in the fiction section, lounging between the G’s and the H’s. I ran my fingers over Elin Hilderbrand’s extensive catalog of beach reads, their flashy covers of sandy beaches and sparkling waters a far cry from the clinical blue of “Nicomachean Ethics.” The sheer number of worlds contained in the books surrounding me was overwhelming: I was paralyzed by the sudden desire to devote attention to each one.
Soon, though, the weight (emotional, yes, but mostly physical) of my assigned reading reminded me of why I had emerged from FitzRandolph Gate in the first place. Bidding farewell to my beloved fiction section, I purchased my books and braved the dreaded walk back to First College. This walk was made even more dreaded by the fact that I had left Labyrinth without a single non-assigned book. Partially because I wasn’t confident I could feasibly carry another book back, but mostly because my course load for the semester made the idea of reading another book unfathomable.
These moments in Labyrinth, some of my first in Princeton, introduced me to a phenomenon I have since become all too familiar with: the death of the pleasure read. At home, with the comparatively minimal course load of a high school English class, I cherished the time I set aside for my own reading. Mind you, I was not paging through “War and Peace” in my spare time. No, this was time solely devoted to the type of reading that took minimal effort. My one rule: if I ever began to keep track of how many pages I had left in the book, I put it down. Oftentimes, this resulted in me turning back to books I had read in childhood — the familiar comforts of “Little Women” and “The Penderwicks” easing me through my almost entirely unjustified teenage angst.
I brought a few of these books with me, but they’ve remained in my bookshelves, the likes of Aristotle and Homer quickly taking precedence. These days, it's a wonder if I get through my assigned reading, let alone have time to read my own books. Stimulating precept discussions and staggering lectures sustain me, but I yearn for texts simpler than Plato’s musings on nothingness or Gertrude Stein’s metaphysical remarks on Picasso.
My peers and friends have expressed similar desires, especially ever since the semester has begun. My first week here was filled (to my delight) with a steady stream of book and essay suggestions, each recommendation giving me a glimpse into the likes and dislikes of my newest acquaintances. Now, though, no more than a month in, I have already seen these exchanges begin to slow. Sure, we discuss class readings at length, but these conversations feel markedly different from the ones that defined my first week here.
I’ve realized now that there is something wonderfully individualistic about having a book all to yourself, whether that be a “pleasure read” or even a more traditionally academic text. In class discussions, the solitary journeys we previously embarked on become communal. The worlds we dove into, in late nights at Firestone Library or curled up beneath the stained glass windows of Chancellor Green, no longer are our own. The characters we have grown to love are now vulnerable, ready to be poked and prodded at by our classmates’ and professors’ analytical eyes.
I wonder, often, if my enduring desire to keep a book all to myself is born entirely out of selfishness. Is it wrong that I want some of my readings to remain untouched by analysis? Or that I want the worlds I have made my own to persist as my own?
As I ask myself these questions and quietly mourn the death of my pleasure read, I am reminded that these shared worlds are, in many ways, some of the things I cherish most about literature. The conversation and communities it fosters are unlike any I have ever experienced, and my time here has only emphasized the value of these discussions. The trudges we make through longer form texts, especially in the Humanities sequence, can be lonely, and my classmates’ insights both serve to ground the works and broaden them.
Still, I want to get back to the books and worlds I have grown accustomed to calling my own. Maybe this desire is one born out of selfishness, but maybe it’s also a necessary one. It is important to carve out spaces where our only company is our own thoughts, quietly finding a sense of self among the stacks and between chapters. Soon, maybe, hopefully, I’ll find the time to dive into Sally Rooney’s newest novel, or sink back into the tales of the March sisters.
Until then, I’ll take solace in the community that Humanities sequence discussions provide — even if it means trudging through all 25 of those books that weighed me down on my way back from Labyrinth.
Clara McWeeny is a Contributing Writer for The Prospect at the ‘Prince’. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on social media @claramcweeny.