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Why reading and rereading books can teach you a lot about racism, privilege and more

By Tahmina Begum

Jun 22, 2020

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It was only when I reread the lines, “Sit. Feast on your life,” that I realised I had forgotten where I acquired those words from. Derek Walcott’s Love After Love is the extract before the story begins in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife. I had somehow misplaced these lines in my mind even though this poem is carried with me when navigating any hardship, any celebrations and all the days in between. 

Before we were all forced to slow down, reading had become another emblem of hustle culture. The only thing that seemed to count was exactly how much you were able to squeeze into your day. With the rise of Booktubers and online book clubs, reading arguably became something that had a means to an end. But do we ever really digest anything, that way? How did COVID-19 and the recent protests influence the way we enjoy books? And what more can we learn from them?

Finding myself running my fingers across my sprouting library isn’t something unfamiliar, but having the time to explore old favourites was a rare pleasure before the coronavirus lockdown. How many times have we all heard the person next to us say they ‘don’t have time to read’? Or when they do, it has to be purposeful, a book that’s apart of the zeitgeist or worse, something productive to further one’s careers. Even these specific books are based on how to be quicker at everything—including reading books that are made to devour, not gobble.

“I used to do the Goodreads reading challenge every year, where you set out how many books you want to read, but now I don’t want to see my leisure time as something that’s another thing to do that day,” says Megan Staunton, a literary agent at Gleam Titles. “Another component in life to document. Another way to divide my time into percentages and commodify my hobbies. There’s also a lot of social pressure to read the ‘right’ things when it’s supposed to be an extension of your sense of self.”

So what has changed during the lockdown; a time of protest, police brutality and deadly virus? It seems we’ve moved past the stage of banana bread and catching up with all the books we were supposed to read these past few years. “In a recent meeting with publishers, we spoke about consumer buying habits and how that’s shifted due to COVID-19,” notes Staunton. “Reading has changed in terms of trends as a lot more readers are seeking escapist novels with nice endings. People are also utilising their bookshelves and revisiting old classics.”

Rereading an old favourite no longer feels like a luxury. Reading something that isn’t trending, and more so, reading a book you’ve already read before if anything is a middle finger to the notion that we have to be even more productive because most of us are at home.

“The amount of comfort rereading a favourite book is really beautiful. It’s the same feeling as catching up with an old friend. When you come across a plot point you’ve experienced before, there’s solace in that sense of nostalgia, especially when there’s so much else going on in the world,” says Staunton.

But there is so much going on in the world. Including the fight for black justice and equality, meaning our conversations on dismantling racism has impacted what we’re consuming. For the first time in history, The New York Times’ best-sellers list this week was composed of ten anti-racist reads, including Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. According to Neilsen Bookscan, the author is also the first Black British author to top the UK’s book charts. The only Black author to do this before was former First Lady, Michelle Obama.

On Twitter, Eddo-Lodge writes, “Can’t help but be dismayed by this—the tragic circumstances in which this achievement came about. The fact that it’s 2020 and I’m the first. Let’s be honest. Reader demand aside, that it took this long is a horrible indictment of the publishing industry.”

It may be a privilege to take a step back and find a home in rereading a book that once touched you, but arguably, being able to read about racism, instead of experiencing it is also a privilege. Which does make me wonder, as much as I’m a reader, how many more books about racism need to be read in order for people not to be racist?

Having the time to read an old favourite again is a chance, one that calls for radical joy, the most underrated type of rebellion. And while I am all for it, it is important we make sure to also use our free time to educate ourselves and learn more about racism. If you’re lucky enough to never have experienced it, reading about it is the closest you’ll get to understanding it.