As a graduate student spending far too many years in the pursuit of my PhD in literature, I am used to reading with a pen in hand.  The copious notes, the marginal glosses, the half-worked out system of asterisks, underlies, circles and boxes have become, detrimentally, part of my reading practice.  When my then girlfriend, now my wife graciously purchased a Kindle for my birthday several years ago, her doing so initially upset my practice.   The idea of reading without a writing instrument unsettled my reading habits and practices, but I quickly adapted to Kindle’s method of note-taking and underlining.  They served as extensions of my old habits.  I had to drop my system of circling and squaring keywords, motifs, or phrases, but retained asterisks in the comments for key moments in the texts I read on the device.

The time I spent in graduate school reinforced these behaviors and habits, making the concept of reading without some form of note-taking unimaginable.  Even when reading something not related to my dissertation, to me, required notes since I could never be certain when that odd early modern recipe book, herbal, bestiary or scientific treatise would somehow later relate to my research on the early modern imagination.  One thing that these habits distracted from, which happened while I was unaware, was the ability to blissfully disappear into a piece of imaginative fiction.  The note-taking kept me from fully occupying the imaginative space conjured from the pages of a particularly engrossing fiction.  My notes kept me outside of the text, which became an object of investigation and a site of cultural meaning no matter if it were a printed book or a Kindleized version of some obscure treatise I pulled from the virtual Early English Books Online shelves.  In short, this practice, which had become second nature, kept the texts I read at arm’s length, constantly forcing me outside the world constructed by the text and into a critical mindset and mode.

My time in graduate school has sapped me of my ability to get lost in another world somehow mysteriously conjured in my imagination from the words on a page or screen.  The very things that led me to love literature had morphed and altered, and I hardly ever read for pleasure anymore.  Every text is a potential object of study.  This past weekend, however, I decided to try something new.  I decided to read a book that I would never have an interest in writing about; something that had no relation whatsoever to my research or the early modern period.  I read Susan Collins’ The Hunger Games.  Betraying the habits that have been so ingrained in my reading practice, I abandoned note-taking and allowed myself, for the first time in a long time, to become engrossed in fiction, and the experience was so refreshing that it was unsettling.  Sure, Collins’ book cannot compete with the brilliance of a Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton, and was not as beautifully written as much of the literature to which I’ve become accustomed, but, for once, it reminded me of the joys of reading, of getting lost in a text; I reveled in the strange and disconcerting way a book can transport oneself, where the object forges a new world in the imagination in which you can lose the sense of yourself in front of a book itself.  The book didn’t become an object of study, but rather a source of abandoning the sense of myself.  For hours, I lost the sense of myself and did not even notice that I had been moving my eyes across a page or that I had been flipping pages.  Instead, I dwelt, for a time, in the space presented to my imagination.    Sure, it’s cliché, and probably doesn’t even need comment, but the experience was liberating and powerful to me, reminding me of why I wanted to go to graduate school in the first place.  It reminds me of the powerful affective quality of abandoning oneself to the power of fiction and how, at times, I need to remember to read without a pen in hand.  Although I’ve taken as my task to write about the representations of the early modern Phantasy, I had forgotten the pleasures the imagination affords when reading for pleasure.  A lesson I should strive to remember as I return to my work.

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  1. Emma Gorst says:

    I sympathise.. It’s nice to just be in the midst of the story, or the argument. I had an instructor a few years ago who asked us not to take any lecture notes because she felt it disrupted the course of the conversation. (We were asked to make notes after class). I now have a great set of lecture notes and pretty good memories of the class too.

    • shapingsense says:

      Sorry I missed this comment previously. Although I’m trying to start Blogging regularly now, I had forgotten about my Blog for far too long. The idea of taking notes after rather during a classroom discussion sounds like a wonderful idea. As you are with these lectures, I find that I remember much more about books I read that aren’t over-noted in the margins.

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