5 Life Lessons On Reading I Learned As An English Major

Reading is a relationship between book and reader. Here are some reflections from a former student of literature to help you reflect on your own reading.

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Pile of books: The Iliad, Pride and Prejudice, The Canterbury Tales, Macbeth, and Brown Girl, Brownstones

Recently, I finished my bachelor’s degree in English literature. I learned that majoring in English is like becoming a full-time reader—it redefined my relationship with reading by forcing me to closely engage with each book I read, whether I enjoyed it or not. Here are some takeaways from my experience that can deepen your own experience with reading books and, perhaps, even make you a better reader.

1. Sometimes it’s worth sticking with a book you’re not enjoying.

Frowning girl reading a book
Image via silviarita from Pixabay

I used to operate by the principle that you shouldn’t waste time with books you don’t enjoy. That often led me to drop books within the first several pages because they failed to grab my interest right away.

I simply couldn’t do that in my English courses. Most of the time, I was pushing through books that I didn’t particularly enjoy and that fell outside my areas of interest. But I was usually able to find something of merit in them by the end, such as a meaningful message, a unique concept, or an insight on the human condition.

Some books I even came to like after a less-than-favorable first impression. Most recently, I read Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, a book I definitely would’ve dropped before college but ended up enjoying in the end. I wouldn’t have encountered one of the most touching father-son relationships I’ve seen in fiction if I had given up on it too early.

That’s not to say you should read every single book to the end, no matter how you feel about it. Just keep in mind that many stories need some time to get rolling. The best ones don’t always start with a bang—they might ease you in slowly, or present themselves one way before revealing their true colors. All they ask is that you give them a few more chapters.

2. Studying a book more closely can bring great rewards.

Guy reading Bible at desk with a highlighter in hand
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You’d be surprised how much new information you can glean from ten minutes of analyzing a single passage. Close reading formed the foundation of my English studies, and all it requires is a text to analyze and an open mind. By taking a book you enjoy and investigating different facets of it—its themes, its worldbuilding, perhaps the way it develops a character—you may come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the work as a whole.

Studying books also involves taking notes while you’re reading. Whenever I read something for class, I would annotate the text for recurring ideas and key passages. These days, I tend to just slap a sticky note on parts that stand out to me to avoid slowing down my pleasure reading too much. These small habits I picked up in college enable me to develop my thoughts on a book in greater detail. By taking general notes throughout your reading of a book, you can keep track of different ideas and explore them in more depth later, enhancing your reading experience as a whole.

3. It’s worth picking up a hard book every so often, even if you normally read for leisure.

Book cover for The Guide to James Joyce's Ulysses by Patrick Hastings
Image via Amazon

I wouldn’t recommend reading difficult books all the time. From my experience, it can be mentally taxing. In smaller doses, however, it can be a nice change of pace. A book can be hard to read in different ways, such as having several layers of meaning, a dense writing style, or a challenging message. A more challenging book can exercise your critical thinking skills and your ability to sort through details, which can also help deepen your understanding of simpler books.

It’s also just healthy to read books that make you think. I love books that are purely for enjoyment as much as the next person, but to what degree do they expand our horizons? In an ideal world, there would be a larger variety of books that make you both think and feel deeply. In reality, looking for books that do both limits your options quite a bit. All this is to say you will benefit from reading a variety of books for different reasons—to make you feel something, to inform yourself, to challenge yourself.

4. It’s not about how many books you read, it’s about how you read them.

Drakeposting meme: "Reading 10 books badly" vs "Reading 1 book well"
Image via Bookstr/Joanne Chung

It’s easy to fall into the mindset of trying to read as many books as possible, moving on to another the moment you finish one. Growing up, I relished the achievement of completing another reading log for 100 Book Challenge, but how well I actually read any of the books is questionable. If you’re not processing a book word by word, thinking about what it’s trying to say, or looking into the parts you don’t understand, are you really reading it in the end? Or are you just trying to tick off another book on your TBR?

Even the greatest books need readers who will meet them halfway. Some books require more time and effort than others. I wasn’t always prepared to put in that work for the ones assigned to me. Looking back, I’m sure I missed out on a lot. Having learned what it means to to truly appreciate and study books, I would rather read a single book well than read ten poorly. It’s what the great ones deserve.

5. Reader burnout is real… but you can always recover from it.

Checklist that includes "balance" and "burnout," with the former checked off
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Confession: I stopped reading any books beyond assigned ones two years into my major. I just couldn’t bring myself to read anymore during my free time. It was easier to watch something, take a walk, take a nap… Staring at words on a page only brought me right back to my assignments.

I questioned whether I still loved reading. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever pick up a book again after college. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. The key is to not force yourself. I learned to enjoy reading again by finding a book that genuinely interested me—not a book that I felt obligated to read because it was required, or because everyone else sung praises about it, or because it was one of the classics.

It’s okay to read whatever you want, whenever you want. That’s how we all fell in love with reading in the first place.

Interested in more of our takes on books and reading? Take a look here at some of our opinion pieces.