Have you ever read the same book nine times? What if it is not your favorite book? What if it is a book you do not like? If you are still nodding your head, then you are probably an educator.
I, too, was an educator. A college professor until May, 2017. I taught literature and I entered the profession because I thought it would provide me with the time to read new books and write. Over the years though, something funny was happening: I was accumulating more and more books, but reading the same ones over and over. Maybe it was just me – surely other, more seasoned educators, had found ways to read new material, but I was unsuccessful.
There’s a misconception that college professors have oodles of free time. Why, if they are not in class, then they are not really working. I have heard that often and it simply is not true. Sure, if it weren’t for lesson planning, grading, catching plagiarism, going to meetings, presenting at conferences, maintaining a scholarly research agenda, and answering a never-ending stream of emails (the worst invention to befall a professor), I suppose there would be time to read. And yet, perhaps because of some sort of impostor syndrome, I found myself re-reading passages so that I knew exactly what I wanted to say and when. I even read articles about the books, so that I could be both intelligent and understandable in my classes. Sadly, those sublime autumn Sundays at the park never materialized as I sat at home grading papers. The prepping never stopped.
A professor has some liberty to choose the reading materials for a course, but even that is an overstatement. In fact, there are multiple factors at hand that seem to go against this very notion. The professor must choose those canonical authors so that the student leaves the class with an understanding and background of the major players. In Latin American literature, for instance, that means you’re teaching Julio Cortazar, Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Rulfo, Laura Esquivel, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Isabel Allende, Pablo Neruda, and Rosario Ferré, whether you want to or not (although with those names, you should want to). I could certainly extend that list, but I cannot extend the semester, which usually comprises of approximately fifteen weeks and forty-five hours of class time. More factors play out: all of these authors have a number of publications and I need to choose one, but is the one that I choose the “best” text or just the shortest one because I need to cram as many authors as possible into those fifteen weeks? Otherwise, I may choose the shortest ones because I believe that students will complain if the reading is over twenty pages a night. I also want to balance out the list because it is so heavily male-dominated. I want to remedy the need for more Afro-Latin American voices, more LGBTQ voices, and I should probably include a U.S. Latino author or two to really stretch the limits of what Latin America even is. Maybe I should include earlier centuries. After all, I wouldn’t want students leaving the class believing that Latin American literature did not start until the twentieth century. Then again, I don’t want to step on the toes of my colleagues who may be using the same readings. By the end of it all, I never knew if I was designing my course readings to reflect my desires or the perceived needs of those around me. But introducing something non-canonical or new that fits the expectations of the department and the students as well as your own? Forget about it.
In 2017, I examined my life. I wanted to read all those books that had collected layers of dust on my shelves. I wanted to write. I wanted to be in academia. I wanted to be surrounded, if not nearly suffocated, by books. I followed the bound-paper trail. I became a librarian. I stepped away from the only career I had ever really known while I was still relatively young, telling myself that my childhood hero Michael Jordan had done the same thing. Thus far and with all due respect to Mr. Jordan, I dare say that my career in librarianship has served me better than his short-lived baseball career. It’s not that I get to read quietly in my office all day, far from it. But I am tasked with building a collection, which means staying apprised to the latest and rarest releases in my field. It also means shopping for and buying hundreds of books with someone else’s money! From bookstores to book fairs, now I’m accumulating books on someone else’s dime. I am expected to have a breadth of knowledge to answer diverse questions, so in turn, I read a variety of books to do so. Moreover, my work environment has shifted from one of infinite solitude (as a professor my co-workers were often dead authors) to one of collaboration and collegiality. Even the students I work with are there because they want to be. Imagine that.
The transition to a standard work week has been relatively painless. I don’t think about work when I’m not there and that gives me a sense of freedom. I know that as much as I enjoy my day surrounded by the stacks, the real magic happens before and after I clock in. I am reading. I am reading all those books that I amassed and never thought I would get around to. All those books that taunted me on my shelves for several years – I devour them with a newfound hunger. I read because I have time to, which is to say that at 4:30, I stop thinking about work. On a light rail full of people hegemonically blasting their music through their headphones or talking on their phone to loved ones or still answering work emails, I am perhaps the most obnoxious person as I nod my head to Frank Baez, guffaw with Tiphanie Yanique and gasp with Alicia Gaspar de Alba. The nuttiest part about it is that I read for myself; I no longer wonder how my students would handle this book, if they would understand the context in which it was written or if they would even bother to read it because it’s too gritty. The only reaction that matters is my own. I am free of constraints regarding what should be taught and in which class. My relationship with books has changed from a shared experience to something that is profoundly and selfishly all mine. To read for pleasure may very well be the one activity that is just as spellbinding in your adulthood as it was in your childhood.
That brings me to my final point. There is something ironic about all this, right? I had to stop being a literature professor in order to enjoy literature again.
Hell, sometimes I write, too.