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Is Reading a Cultural Addiction?

Tori Sharp discusses whether the act of reading is an addiction that makes one 'insular', or whether it is a key pasttime in an individual's life.

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Bibliophilia. Bibliomania. Obsessive compulsive reading. Book readers anonymous.

Reading is known by most as a relaxing past time; a chance to de-stress and unwind, a chance to rediscover old favourites or enter a new sanctuary of literary escape. But for some people, this is not a choice, it is an impulse. Zadie Smith recently spoke about the practice of reading, not as a lifestyle choice, but as a habit that she cannot live without.

Much like smoking or biting your nails, for some people the pleasure of reading a book does not come only once a year during the summer holidays but is a year-round activity that they cannot live without. I use the pronoun ‘they’ tentatively because I have recently come to a self-realisation that I suffer from this bibliomania. Unlike others who tend to encourage themselves to read more, perhaps a book a week, or a month; I tend to have to limit myself, otherwise my ‘pleasure’ reading will trump my university reading, meaning I would never get any work done.

I tend to have to limit myself, otherwise my ‘pleasure’ reading will trump my university reading

Smith calls herself a pathological reader and I think, although quite an extreme title, I would probably put myself into this category as well. I hasten to add that I am not writing this as a humble brag, or to make anyone feel guilty about not reading, but merely as an insight into the brain of someone who cannot sleep without reading at least a chapter from my latest Waterstones purchase. My bedside table is straining from the mile-high mountain of books that I am currently working through. For me, committing a whole Sunday to working on an essay in the library is a near to impossible feat, whereas sitting on the sofa and ploughing through a book is easy, probably to the detriment of my degree.

In a recent episode of the High Low podcast, host Pandora Sykes recalls how she used reading as an escape when she was younger, delving into the worlds of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, and I can relate to this completely. Even now, reading is used by many as an escape, much like we use social media. It is a way of inhabiting other worlds and the lives of other people, sometimes as a way to avoid your own mundane existence. As oppose to scrolling through Instagram, reading is considered a cultural activity, and therefore not ever considered a sanctioned vocation, and although it is, of course, a good thing to encourage, is there ever a time when reading becomes excessive? We champion children who read instead of playing on their iPads or watching television, but could it be the case that reading is also a method of avoiding other important tasks, and causes us to become overly insular?

reading is used by many as an escape, much like we use social media

When I was younger, my sister and I were competitive about reading. We would race through books and see who could read the most, so much so, that on a visit to the opticians a few years ago, he mentioned that a recent study claimed that children who read a lot would develop sight issues much earlier than their less-literary counterparts. To me this makes complete sense, as both my sister and I have worn glasses since a very young age and both of our eye sights have deteriorated as we have grown older. I would never wish that my parents had discouraged reading as the Wormwoods did in Matilda, but perhaps it was to the detriment of other more essential things!

As it goes, I do not believe that reading will ever be or should be considered a serious addiction and I don’t think that I will attend a literary rehab any time soon, but I think that it is something to ponder when you next cancel an appointment to finish the latest Times bestseller.

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