I first read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things as a college sophomore in a seminar on women in literature. I remember it distinctly because I’d decided not to read it. I’d planned to read a summary in an attempt to heed the advice of a pragmatic professor concerned about my sleeping patterns (or lack thereof). So what if I was in the honors program with a double major and a minor and worked on the college paper and wrote a weekly news column and held down a work-study job? I was still going to read every single word that I was assigned to read. “Half of college, and graduate school, is figuring out what you need to read and what you don’t,” this professor told me, as he examined my copy of Mrs. Dalloway, which I’d not only read twice for seminar–but had highlighted in eight different colors, tracing patterns of imagery and major themes throughout.* My cheeks flushed as I tried not to smile. Graduate school. I was being told in a backwards way that I could maybe go to graduate school!**
Of course, the moment I’d decided not to read The God of Small Things, I couldn’t put it down. Not only was it a forbidden task–which made it all the more alluring***–but I realized something, then: I couldn’t not read all the words I’d been assigned to read back then because I loved them. Papers and deadlines aside, I quivered in anticipation of doing my readings at night. While peers pored over textbooks and scribbled solutions to problems in their notebooks, or made note cards to memorize terms, I found my favorite chair in the library and read and read and read. Which is all I ever wanted to do anyways. I was in disbelief that they let me do this for class credit and call it a major. I felt like I shouldn’t talk about it too much. As if they’d discover me and force me to study something else once they realized how much it meant to me. I felt like I was tricking someone; surely, it wasn’t possible to mold your life around something you cared about so deeply, was it? Wasn’t ‘work’ supposed to be quotidian, repetitive, and somewhat unpleasant?
Sometimes, the books I read challenged me. Sometimes they confused me. Most times, I liked them. Sometimes, I disagreed with them and disliked them because of it. Sometimes I loved them so hard their pages wrinkled because I cried on them. Because that’s what I do when I love something: I cry on it a little bit. And then I fall asleep next to it, and the pages get a little bit wrinkled.
That’s what happened with The God of Small Things when I read it as a 19-year-old. As a 26-year-old, I was drawn into the story again, though I was reading it with a different lens: as someone slightly older, more mature, and with an eye on a 20 – 25 page final paper for a seminar in a class entitled Human Rights and Literature. But I was pulled back into being 19 again as I read. Can’t you always remember where you were, how old you were, how you felt, when you read a book that moved you deeply? The way you felt when you saw the plot unravel for the first time? I stayed up until 3 a.m. reading that book and stared out the window into the pitch black sky for a long while afterwards. The next morning, I had a headache–my version of the college kid hangover–but I regretted nothing.
I continued to do my readings all throughout college because I was idealistic–but also because I couldn’t think of anything better to do with my days, anyways. I was 19, after all. There probably isn’t anything better I could have been doing.
Sometimes, deep into final papers, reading assignments, and grad school life, it’s nice to be re-assigned a book you once read a long time ago because it makes you remember how you got here in the first place.
*Don’t worry–that was my “working copy” of the novel. I have a clean, beautiful copy in hardcover for pure enjoyment when I’m not thinking about papers.
**Future Kristina would like to punch Past Kristina in the face, right in that moment. Future Kristina is somewhere in the midst of writing her dissertation, and inevitably frustrated with her ninth draft of her first chapter, and wishes she could tell Past Kristina to take that journalism job offer back in ’08. Present Kristina (a.k.a. the one writing right now) is too tired after M.A. exams and final papers to analyze the interactions between Past and Future Kristina–never mind the weirdness into which this quasi-footnote has devolved.
***I should try to forbid myself from doing laundry. Maybe that would make me actually do it instead of buying more clothes each time I run out to delay the inevitable.