Books that Bind us and the Reason to Read + Join a Bookclub (or not!)

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Books that Bind us and the Reason to Read + Join a Bookclub (or not!)

Twelve years ago my father had one big concern about my future.

It wasn’t a typical concern about my career path, my scholastic achievement, or the woes of teenagehood. His concern was one entirely about my hatred of reading. 

Let me set the scene… when my father was a young boy living in Kenya well below the poverty line, he used to read garbage, literally trash,  to advance his reading comprehension that he was learning at school. He would read to bolster his vocabulary and ensure that he was able to read in multiple languages (Maasai, Swahili, and English). My father was good at school and earned a full-ride scholarship to Cambridge University in England. Throughout his academic career, he collected seven degrees from several universities and even wrote a few of his own books. When he learned that I hated reading more than waking up in the morning for school, he wasfor a lack of a better word—shook. 

Now in all honesty I didn’t hate reading for any particular reason, I just liked everything else more.

My older brother and sister were both well into elementary school when I was born, leaving a significant age gap between us. I was raised much like an only child, while my brother and my sister were both away in boarding school. At the age of 8, I started the same school my brother and sister had, but they were both in high school. I wasn’t very close to them when I was younger, so the newness of living in the same place my friends lived changed my social life. No longer was I being raised alone, I had something to do all day, every day, for 9 months of the year. Growing up my best friends were my sisters. We shared hobbies, homework, snacks, gossip, secrets, virtually everything we could, and that went on for 5 years. In 5 years of boarding school, I learned how to occupy my time so well that when I withdrew and started going to day school my social circle vanished overnight. I had long weekends of TV marathons, the occasional weekend trip, and boredom. 


Vampire Mania

“Idle hands are the devil’s playthings,” my father used to say so often on weekends he saw me surfing on the couch watching whatever TV show was on. So one weekend as we were heading home from school my father stopped at a bookstore per my request. 

I hadn’t lost my mind, but in such haste to not relive the boredom that happened every Saturday prior, I asked my dad to stop at a bookstore so I could casually see what was out there. Walking into the bookstore felt a lot like I was walking into hostile territory, but there was one book that I was curious about. Earlier that month, two of my best friends were having an argument over a love triangle from a book that they were reading. This argument spawned from two of my best friends arguing which of the two guys the girl would end up with. This led to my class getting involved. 

It turned out over the two weeks of this discussion, more and more of my friends bought their own copy of the book to read. Arriving at the bookstore I was laser-focused on one book and one book alone. I picked up Twilight. Elated that I wanted to read a book, Dad was happy enough to pay for it regardless of the content inside.


An  Obsession and a Confession

Thirteen. You have to remember that I was only thirteen at the time, and ultimately that vampire mania got to me. I read Twilight all in one sitting and that Saturday night my dad and I drove back to the same bookstore and bought the other 3 books in the series. At school on Monday I walked in fully committed to Team Edward, no one could sell me on Team Jacob. One book in and I was consumed in the Twilight/Vampire Mania. I recall a time that I was sitting in church reading Eclipse and my dad wasn’t even phased by my dedication to the YA novel that was taking the world by storm. After that first weekend that I picked up Twilight, we made weekly stops to the library to pick up a new series.

I had a new hobby that became my new obsession. 

I didn’t make the best choices on books to read that first year of reading…virtually every book I read had a character that was a vampire and all of my books were YA novels, but that didn’t matter to my father. Dad was willing to buy me vampire books to ensure that my love for reading would not only grow but sustain for years to come, and that is what happened. I diversified my reading choices, I started reading books that were less vampire soap operas, and more fantasy. For a while there I got obsessed with John Grisham novels and was convinced I would be a criminal lawyer. After my Grisham run, I got into classic novels with more complex themes of sadness, pain, grief (this was considered my crying phase) which got me obsessed with biographies of African freedom fighters, Feminist icons, and political dissidents. 


Books that Bind Us

By the time I turned 15 my sister moved back home after being away in college for 4 years. I knew nothing about her life, which felt like I was meeting a stranger. It took us a while to bond. Back in boarding school, every phone call I had with her lasted five minutes and it was to reassure her that I was still alive. On summer vacation back home I found a few books that my sister bought for me as a welcome home gift. The five books laid out were books she loved while she was away in college. She was meeting me halfway trying to connect with me on something that I loved, something that I was passionate about. 

It was the spark that bonded us. 

We started our own little book club and read most of the same books. While I was away in school she would send me recommendations of books she loved and every call went from a five-minute call to a 45-minute discussion on what we were reading. We developed our own kind of language, a difference in taste, and respect for our differences. She was into sadder dramatic reads, while I loved long world-building fantasy stories. Despite our genre preferences, I would read the books that she loved, because she thought it was worth the read. 


Different Strokes for Different Folks

Twelve years and my passion for reading hasn’t stopped. Most people consider reading a hobby, something they love to do with their free time. Reading for me? Is more than an activity I do for my leisure. On a good day, I read a book a day; on average 4-5 books a week, for a yearly average of 200 books. Reading to me is something that is well beyond a casual encounter, but a sustaining activity. 

This year my goal was to read 300 books (pace per day would be 1.3 or 5.8 books a week). I’ve been averaging 5 books a week, while I have been keeping to pace for the last 9 months, I hit a bump on the road. Burn out! How do you get burn-out from an activity that you love? 

I’m glad you asked…I’m blaming Matthew Young, my fellow Fellow. He had the great idea to host a book club. Book clubs are great, don’t get me wrong…having the ability to talk with your friends or family about a similar book that you’re both reading helps nurture your reading skills further (If you’re not in a book club, join one). The key reason for the hiccup was that we have different reading styles. I marathon books, cover to cover, while Matt and the other members of our book club savor the story. Our fundamentally different approaches to reading a book set us up for different outcomes altogether. 


Meat and Potatoes

In my hiatus from reading, I learned a few key factors that brought to light why it’s important to read (more than books).

Looking back at my period of rest, I realized I stopped reading books, but my reading practices never stopped. I would be reading long research articles about random topics like “Why women and men communicate differently”, or “agricultural studies on why homogenous fruit and vegetables will go extinct”. I was itching to occupy the time that was designated for reading with something else and reading articles filled that void pretty well. While reading books is an incredibly convenient way of consuming content in an already prepackaged form, books are missing the easy consumption that articles offer. Articles, journals, research reports have no fluff, they get right into the meat and potatoes. I was getting burnt out from the constant tradition of long introductions only for the book to end so quickly.

A switch-up was needed. 

Changing up the genre of the books that I was reading reduced the fatigue that I was experiencing, but it didn’t sustain long enough. I need to switch up the reading materials that I was consuming. Changing up my reading structure did mess with my plans to read 300 books. I was willing to make a change because we all read for different reasons; reading serves many purposes whether it be mental stimulation, stress reduction, focus, and concentration, or entertainment. 

My main focus for my goal was to gain knowledge from as many different sources, which at the time were books, but now is a mix of articles, journals, books, expert opinions, or more. Someday I will hit 300 books a year, but for now, I’m happy to have achieved a record high of 193 in 9 months. 

12 years later, it’s incredible to reflect on how the Twilight Saga did in some way change my life.

Senewa Sena is a 2019 VFC Fellow and RBC Honorary Award Recipient.