As a young girl growing up in the country, books were an essential part of my life. Encouraged by my mother, I read most of the English classics by the age of fifteen. The reading lists in high school, in Dutch, English, and French, were sources of enjoyment. Books provided a refuge, imaginary worlds, models I could identify with, and a prism through which to think about life. Books provided me with meaning, and I think that this is one main reason why I enjoyed reading so much and would prefer it over other activities such as watching television.
Like any good habits acquired early in life, the pleasure of reading has, luckily, never left me. These habits helped me do well as a student, in the sense that I had acquired a certain discipline and a trained, focused attention to the written word. The textbooks that were required reading for my courses in political science were meaningful, especially when addressing questions of justice, but it is fair to say that these were less personally meaningful to me. Reading for pleasure and for personal meaning, so the university seemed to say, should be done in one’s spare time. Such activity was considered ‘unscientific’ and too personal and subjective to be part of a university education.
Indeed, it is fair to say that the modern research university is focused on the accumulation of knowledge and the development of academic research skills, goals that translate into learning outcomes and learning trajectories for each student. University Colleges may be considered as precious exceptions. By contrast, ‘reading for pleasure’ is difficult to measure and ‘personal meaning’ is an awkward learning outcome at best, and one that is even less quantifiable. The indeterminateness and uncertainty of a reader’s response makes it an activity that defies the standardization necessary for education quality assurance reports.
One may wonder, however, whether modern universities have not become too focused on the purely cognitive and quantifiable side of learning. There are several concerns that are causing this ideal to fissure. The first concern is that modern universities are becoming too competitive (Leesen & Van Lenning, 2020). The meritocratic, grade-focused environment tends to instrumentalize education and tyrannizes the individual student. Students are pushed to build ever more impressive CV’s but have no sense of purpose (Deresiewicz, 2014). Although it is not the only cause, the excessively competitive environment may be one cause for a sharp rise in mental health issues among students. Last year, the Trimbos Institute reported that about 50% of students experience feelings of fear and depression, and at least 80% of students feel lonely. Citing Deresiewicz, Alkeline van Lenning summarized the concerns well when she stated that “[d]ue to the lack of grand stories and the ethics embodied in them, students not only become empowered consumers but also lonely résumé builders, trapped in a meritocratic labyrinth. Students tell us that they feel left to their own devices, fending or forced to fend for themselves in a rat race … They want a successful career but they also want to do some good and truly contribute to society. In other words: students want to lead meaningful lives” (2019, p. 31).
Furthermore, the competitive culture at universities seems to privilege those students who come from well-to-do and educated families, disproportionately setting first-generation students and students with a third world migration background at a disadvantage. What’s worse, in a ‘meritocratic’ environment, the ‘losers’ of the system have themselves to blame for the lack of success (Van Lenning, 2019).
Van Lenning’s analysis of the predicament of the modern student dovetails with recent insights in psychology. Jeffrey Arnett (2014) and others have coined the term “emerging adulthood” to refer to a distinct phase of development between adolescence and young adulthood, from the ages of 18 to 25. In industrialized societies, as Arnett argues, young people postpone adulthood by delaying major life choices such as settling into a career, finding a life partner, buying a house, and becoming a parent. Instead, ‘emerging adults’ use their late teens and early twenties for self-exploration, self-reflection, and personal development. They find themselves in a situation of instability, not settling down, and the period of self-exploration can be intense. They have a desire to think about who they are and who they want to become.
If Arnett is correct, then the predicament of the modern student is as follows. There is a strong desire to explore the self, one’s values, what gives one’s life meaning, and so on. At the same time, students are caught in a university system that, by and large, ignores their personal quest of self-exploration and identity formation. In addition, the demands of social media are making the predicament of students perhaps even more complex. In the competitive environment of universities, where many students looking for meaning and identity get caught up in a performance mentality, the space for reflection and experience is restricted further by the dominance of the snap-shot online existence.
All this makes me tap into my ‘inner child,’ the girl that found pleasure, solace, inspiration, and meaning in books. Could this be a gift to pass on to today’s university student? Could my childhood love of ‘reading for pleasure’ provide modern students with utopian pockets of relief? Here, my educational utopia may need more elaboration. How does reading books become a meaningful and, thereby, in some form or other, pleasurable activity? And what could be ways in which to carve out institutional space for such activity?
In the scholarly literature, different approaches that tend to connect at some level to the question of ‘how to read for pleasure.’ I will mention two of them here. Firstly, some scholars (Booth, Phelan, Felski) think about the impact reading may have on the reader from the perspective of ‘rhetorical reading.’ Rita Felski, in Uses of Literature (2008), laments that literary studies as these have taken shape as an academic discipline have come to ignore the ways in which works of literature “infiltrate and inform our lives.” Readers engage with literature, so argues Felski, both on an intellectual and an emotional level. She summarizes a reader’s response to literature in four ways.
Firstly, there is the phenomenon of recognition whereby the reader connects to a book on account of feeling “addressed, summoned, called to account” by a character or a specific plot line (p. 23). Often, recognition invites self-reflection and “as selfhood becomes self-reflexive, literature comes to assume a crucial role in exploring what it means to be a person” (p. 25).
Secondly, Felski argues that a reader may be enchanted by the details of a book.1 The reader becomes captivated by the storyline and the characters, to the point that she feels herself “enclosed in a bubble of absorbed attention that is utterly distinct from the hit-and-miss qualities of everyday perception” (p. 54). The experience constitutes a kind of “rapturous self-forgetting” (p. 55) Allowing for such an experience is distinct from the kind of experience that is usually invited in the academic classroom, where texts should meet with an analytical and critical eye. But when it comes to ‘reading for pleasure’ such “narrative hypnosis” (62) and enchantment are preferred, and one may wonder whether the analytical and enchanted approaches should be considered mutually exclusive.
Thirdly, when thinking about ‘reading for pleasure’ Felski points out that literary texts may bring a kind of knowledge that is not offered by other texts or disciplines. One motive for reading, she argues, is “the hope of gaining a deeper sense of everyday experiences and the shape of social life” (p. 83). Literary forms such as metaphor, like fiction, are not literally true but have the capacity to generate new ways of seeing the world: “we cannot help but make sense of the world through models and poetic analogies” (p. 86). Literature aids the reader in developing a poetic sensitivity that helps with meaning-making.
And fourthly, Felski points out that readers may engage with a literary text because, well, they are shocked by one of its characters, a plot, or an image. “Encountering such texts felt like a slap in the face” (p. 106). Such an experience may be had by reading a story involving intense suffering, loss, violence, or injustice. Reading for ‘pleasure’ becomes reading at a level of intense emotional engagement.
A second group of scholars (Miall, Kuiken, Fialho) can be positioned more squarely in the ‘transformative reading approach’ an approach that expresses a keener need to accumulate scientific evidence for the idea that literature changes lives. By means of interviews, Fialho’s research (2019, p. 9) shows how reading literature can constitute a self-modifying experience. Reading gives (secondary school) students “a sense of purpose by adding meaning to their lives.” The findings are corroborated by Tangeras’ Literature and Transformation. A Narrative Study of life-Changing Reading Experiences (2020), a fascinating study based on five in-depth interviews about how specific literary texts have provided a life-changing experience for people.
Together, authors such as Felski and Fialho advocate for reading as a meaningful activity, whether in schools or universities. Their research helps the case for my educational utopia, where reading for pleasure becomes possible within the university. But this leaves the more practical question of how such spaces for ‘reading for pleasure’ could be created in a university setting. As to implementation, I can think of three strategies that may work, given the specific context of a university and the availability of committed faculty and staff. The first strategy may seem the most obvious one, which is to design ‘reading for pleasure’ courses as optional or required courses in a curriculum. One example is the Transformative Text (TT) courses developed at Purdue University as part of their Cornerstone: Learning for Living credit sequence. The impetus for the program is an attempt to reinvigorate the liberal arts and, at this university, the attempt met with widespread institutional support and significant financial commitments. The success formula for the courses revolves around small class sizes, teacher autonomy in the selection of texts (poems, short stories, etc.); 3. integration of the mentoring system; teachers also function as mentors. The TT courses demand a high level of commitment and are writing intensive.
The second strategy is more subtle. In this case, faculty members may be encouraged to include ‘reading for pleasure’ elements in their disciplinary courses. Such an integration strategy may meet the overbearing demands of ‘measurable learning objectives.’ It would allow faculty members to share a piece of text or art that they are passionate about, and create a space where themes can be discussed more holistically. An example could be to share an ‘ecopoem’ in a course on Environmental Economics or, better still, invite students to look for an ecopoem and bring it to class. Poems, as authors such as Felski have pointed out, have a specific propensity to engage the mind and invite associative thought.2 These ‘reading for pleasure’ moments in disciplinary courses need not be graded. Instead, they could provide incidental spaces where the pressure is taken away and students can relax and share.
The third strategy is extra-curricular, and is constituted by creating spaces outside of the classroom that invite moments of ‘reading for pleasure’. One could think of a book sharing corner in the university libraries, where students are invited to leave a copy of a book that they love for other students. Teaching and mentoring faculty could be invited to think about opportunities for book-gifting to a student whom they share a connection with. From my own experience during graduate school, a university professor couple invited a small group of students to their house every other month for poetry potluck sessions, sessions that I remember fondly. The extracurricular activities could also take the shape of service learning. Requiring each student to do either an internship or a community project, Amsterdam University College has developed strong ties with the Dutch Voorleesexpress, where students visit immigrant families in order to read to the children. In the process, the students themselves are invited to reflect on what reading means to them and how fictional worlds are a gift to be passed on to others.
In many ways, reading is a magical activity whereby black scribblings on a page conjure up new ideas, arresting insights, and fascinating fictional images. ‘Reading for pleasure’ is an activity that is too good not to share, and it may make our modern universities a bit more hospitable to the questioning, searching, self-reflective student trying to carve out a space for herself in the world.
Arnett, J.J. (2014) Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the late teens through the twenties. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Deresiewicz, W. (2015) Excellent Sheep. The Miseducation of the American Elite and a Way to a Meaningful Life. New York: Free Press.
Felski, R. (2008) The Uses of Literature. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Fialho, O. (2019) What is literature for? The role of transformative reading. Cogent Arts & Humanities, 6:1.
Leesen, T., & Van Lenning, A. eds. (2020) Success and Failure in Higher Education: Building Resilience in Students. Tilburg: Tilburg University Press.
Trimbos (2022). Hoger onderwijs moet werk maken van mentale gezondheid studenten - Trimbos-instituut. https://www.trimbos.nl/actueel/nieuws/hoger-onderwijs-moet-werk-maken-van-mentale-gezondheid-studenten/
Van Lenning, A. (2019) Out of the Labyrinth. Inaugural address, Tilburg University.