“In every direction I turned I felt my soul being trampled upon, and as I had always suspected but was never able to confirm until now: my soul is composed entirely of books.”
Before this article begins I should stress an important fact about myself: I’m a passionate, enthusiastic, possibly madly-in-love bibliophile. Books are my absolute world, my whole universe. They take up all of my (non-working) thoughts of my day, they give me butterflies in my stomach that no lover has ever managed to compete with (although, my domestic partner has come exceptionally close, otherwise he wouldn’t be living with me and my beloved library.) My books are my family, they saved me. They got me through my darkest times, they never judged me, they comforted me, they held me and understood me when no one else did. But for the past year and a half I haven’t spoken about them much; they’ve been in my shadow, read in secrecy and left undiscussed. Why? Because my passion was locked away by myself; I became ashamed, secretive and silent. It was my response to being hurt, badly, and it’s only now I have the confidence to embrace my passion and who I am again fully and openly. I’m not hiding it away anymore; I’m wearing my bibliophilia like a tattoo on my lips. Nothing will not take this away from me, ever again.
If anyone were to ask me to point the finger at the cause, the reason I broke down and lost my way, why everything in my literary sphere was torn apart by metaphoric, rabid hounds which subsequently left me infected, ill and weak, my immediate reaction would be to shoot a hard, firm finger in the direction of the Complete works of Bertrand Russell. Aye, I would affirm, there’s the culprit. See how he sits unfinished, 400 pages in with another 500 to go. He ruined me, left me to rot, and the trauma of his fury has kept me at bay ever since. It’s a nice little theory because it’s neat and fitting. The destructive and exhausting power of a colossal book is something anyone, even those with little reading prowess, would accept and understand empathetically. But I’m afraid I’m going to have to stop myself right there. Nice try Cinzia, trying to skirt around the issue but such a hypothesis is too easy. You can’t blame Bertrand for burning you out when you did a masters thesis on Ulysses; the logic of the sentiment is inconsistent with reality.
Admit it: for the past year and a half books ruined your life so you retreated, ran away, and hid injured and insecure. Well, no that’s not true so let’s clarify. People in the book world hurt you, and you wrongly attributed their actions to literature itself. You had, to borrow a fantastic literary line of thought, a series of unfortunate events brought about in your life by literature, or rather your love of it, and therefore to avoid such incidents happening again you began to disassociate yourself from books and reading in general (or rather, you kept it to yourself and spoke of it to nobody.)
I battled with Bertrand Russell in January 2017, but the truth of the matter is that I’ve been fighting this war since the end of 2015. Those who knew me back then will know this already but December 2015 was a traumatic time for me. It was the year I graduated from my masters degree but also the year I realised my PhD dreams were over indefinitely (unless I somehow won the lottery and could afford to pay for a PhD myself). I had to come to terms that my aspirations of being a lecturer were impossible. I was scarred with the ‘unsuitable for AHRC funding’ marker (commonly known as a 2:1 grade result) and was left feeling lost and disenchanted. The severity of this scenario probably doesn’t come across to many of you reading, but academia was my purpose in life, so much so that the loss of it left me feeling so distraught that [trigger warning] I made four suicide attempts in response to my grief. Like Romeo to Juliet I felt like I couldn’t live without it and therefore I had no reason to carry on living. Though as we all know, had Romeo just given it a little more time to let himself heal and reflect, not only would he have been rewarded with the news Juliet was indeed still alive, but even if she hadn’t he would have found purpose again (although such purposeful meaning only comes to fruition after persevering through a slow and painful period of time, I assure you, it does come, eventually.)
2016 continued to be difficult; I was left unemployed for months. Unemployment, stress and overworking doesn’t leave much mental space for reading, but by the time I became a fully fledged book buyer I thought all would be well. Except, sadly, things got worse. I had been a bookseller for four years previously and it was the best job I’d ever had in my life; I loved every minute of it. This blog post is not about how all bookselling results in what I experienced: my prior bookselling days were magnificent. I adored being a bookseller and would work in an independent bookshop in a heartbeat. This time however I found myself back in the school playground where I, in my mid-twenties, became once again subject to immature but pretty intense bullying. Not only that, but it also became quickly apparent that no one, colleague or customer, was safe from being scrutinised by competitive and snobbish booksellers with nothing but pseudo-intellectuality weakly propping up their egos.
The elitist, overly-commercialised, competitive and insincere handling of literature is what had turned me off book reviewing on Youtube and watching Booktube in general, and I suddenly found myself not only retreating online from literature, but also offline. What made things worse was that my personal life played out in a similar, unfortunate thread. People who I was once incredibly close to from the online book community just stopped talking to me for reasons I still can’t decipher. After nine months of frequently finding myself randomly bursting into tears or crawling into melancholic days of solidarity, this week I finally promised my partner I would stop grieving those friendships and move on (the poor chap is likely exhausted from my perpetual, unanswerable lamentations of “what did I do wrong? I miss her so much, I must have done something!” which reveals, ironically, that I didn’t learn anything from reading The Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki.) My bookish passions also drew me to toxic people, the most distressing incident being that at one point I ended up dating a man who worked in the literary world who turned out to be abusive; knocking me back mentally, physically and emotionally for a long time, and was really the last punch in the literary gut — I was reading Bertrand Russell at the time. I’ve yet to pick it up again; but oh, don’t worry, I will soon. I will not allow a man to affect me negatively in any way; especially when it comes to my books.
“I came from a literary world where readers were reading for the sake of literary, academic pursuits. Where there was no ego, there was no self; it was all undergone entirely for the book’s sake, the author’s sake. Literature’s sake. Now I was in the real world, full of competitive egos and superficiality, a parasitical mentality which was plaguing my beloved literature and I, nauseated, revulsed.”
In every direction I turned I felt my soul being trampled upon, and as I had always suspected but was never able to confirm until now: my soul is composed entirely of books. The more I was torn apart and attacked as a person, the more my esteem was chipped away at by negative, jealous, small people, the more I saw myself as a failure and let people trample all over me, the less I read. Reading became an excessively private experience for me; if someone asked me “how the book was” that I was reading I became defensive and angry inside. Externally I would shrug at them and answer, in a small, unenthusiastic voice “it’s ok”, but in my head I heard myself replying the same cruel response each time: “What a stupid, innocuous, unimaginative question! How can someone trivialise literature that way?! What an ignoramus! This is a skilled, philosophic masterpiece I’m engaged with and you ask me ‘how is it?’ What a lame, frivolous attitude towards literature!”
I know, right? That’s shocking. I don’t even know where this voice came from. It didn’t go unchecked; I was critical of it the second it popped up in my head. I couldn’t understand why it appeared, it just did; and I stopped talking about books out loud because of it. This defensive, angry snob only ever came out when a question about what I was reading ever came up. No other time. This book snob never popped in my head if someone was discussing their love of Zoella’s books, some random YA novel or even a celebrity biography. It only came when I was asked “How’s the book you’re reading?” It probably derived from a number of psychological avenues: from the toxic work environment to fear of the over-analytical scrutiny from strangers online, former friends gossiping about you behind you back in their little bookish cliques etc. All avenues varied but they boiled down to the same rotting core which was in insecurity, inferiority and fear of judgement. I was constantly comparing myself to other readers and I felt like every time I was attacked, my literary and academic credibility was being attacked also. It didn’t help that the literary world was metamorphosed into this disgustingly over-commercialised, self-promotional, egocentric corporate machine that I was having to deal with day in and day out. I was no longer in my safe little academic field, surrounded by sincere lovers of literature who weren’t one-man-upping each other; it wasn’t about how many books you’d read in a day, a week, a month, there wasn’t a tally, there wasn’t a race to create new content. I came from a literary world where readers were reading for the sake of literary, academic pursuits where there was no ego, there was no self; it was all undergone entirely for the book’s sake, the author’s sake. Literature’s sake. Now I was in the real world, full of competitive egos and superficiality, a parasitical mentality which was plaguing my beloved literature and I, nauseated, revulsed.
It’s not all gloom and doom however; I saw the erroneous paths I had crossed and taken and made my own way back through the dark forest, no moonlit pebbles, no bread crumbs: which is why it took me so long to get back. Reader, I read again. I took somewhat of an analytical “mindfulness” approach to life and dissected myself to amend my ways. The first step was building myself again, constructing from scratch my absolutely nonexistent self-esteem and reminding myself what books mean to me, how passionate and true I am as a reader, and how worthy my experience with books is. I was so caught up in trying to win at the social media, bookseller, commercial game that I forgot the girl who dreamed of talking about literature to her students, the girl who lived for books and was saved by books, who found her purpose in life between the pages. She didn’t need external validation for that; people had been trying to put her down, telling her she wasn’t intelligent enough, literate enough or too dyslexic and slow to befit her life’s purpose of reading. What I reminded myself was that no one can evaluate, analyse or refute my life’s purpose. It’s not up for debate, reevaluation or scrutiny. I found my life purpose and its legitimacy is as valid as my life is.
The second step was learning how to talk again. I’ve found writing to be the most regarding for myself but I understand and appreciate the potential of social media. Thus last month I had to face that unavoidable dark matter; for in my new job as a digital marketing manager it’s somewhat impossible to avoid it. It’s my job now. So, as a compromise, I logged onto my old account and unfollowed everyone. Absolutely everyone: except publishers and bookshops. I stripped back the selves and was left with what mattered most to me: my books. No authors even in sight. Just the books; and yes, it’s commercialism but it’s not as grimy and if I want my books to survive I need to support their manufacturers and gatekeepers (i.e. libraries, bookshops and publishers). This has worked wonders. My feed now is full of just bookish news, bookish news articles, no egos in sight, and I aspire to emulate what I follow. I will only speak of bookish things (and hopefully create a little comic strip to bring some humour and positive vibes to people’s lives. Because positivity and literary goodness is needed to heal all!)
So happy new year my bookish friends: may we have a year full of books, reading and learning.