Writer in Residence

Confessions of an Uncertain Booklover

By Zalika Reid-Benta

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All my life, I’ve considered myself to be a booklover. Even my twitter handle has the word ‘literati’ in it (don’t judge me. I was a pretentious undergrad when I came up with it). English was my favourite subject in school: I got a BA in the subject then went on to pursue a graduate degree in creative writing and of course now, I’m pursuing my goal to make a career out of writing. Yet I’ve come to dread the question: “What are you reading right now?” because half of the time I’m asked, I’m not reading anything at all or I’m not reading anything new. It surprises people.

Writers and booklovers are supposed to read all the time or at the very least, at every chance they get. Even fiction tells us this with characters like Rory Gilmore who carried no less than three books in her knapsack at all times or Hermione Granger who practically lived in the library.In my defence, I show some of the telltale signs of being a bookworm (according to BuzzFeed Quizzes, anyway). See, I too never go anywhere without at least one book in my bag – but I don’t have to read it, I simply have to have it with me just in case. I also have an ever-growing home library. But I don’t consume novels by the dozens, I’m not particularly well-versed in what new books come out and when. Can I really consider myself a bookworm if I’m not a voracious reader? Can I really call myself a self-respecting writer? Isn’t that the definition of being a poser?

Don’t get me wrong, books have had a monumental impact on me from a very young age. I used to try and read everything on my mother’s bookshelf even if I didn’t understand what I was reading. Especially if I didn’t. I grew up reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved because even before I understood the genius of her writing, I knew it was an important book and I had a spiritual connection to her words. Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John was the first novel I read where I felt somewhat seen and represented, that made me realize it was OK to put characters who looked like me in books. I consider Harry Potter to be a defining aspect of my childhood.

When I find a novel or short story collection I love, I enjoy it to the best of my ability: I read it, study it, write out paragraphs that speak to me, dialogue exchanges that make me want to be a better writer. I encourage everyone around me to read what I’m reading. I also never read the book only once. When I discovered Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, it was like falling in love. I was in complete awe of the way she could create atmosphere with her word choice and wouldn’t shut up about the book for weeks, slipping it in to every conversation I had.

The level of devotion I put into a book that hooks me is intense and so I wonder if the quantity of books really qualifies a person’s love for them or if having strong connections to the few they read is enough to characterize them as a lover of books. It’s the same with writing isn’t it? Do you qualify a writer’s merit on the amount of novels or poems or books they’ve written or the writing itself even if the amount is small?

Not to get faux deep or anything but I think we’ve been conditioned to not only believe that more is better when it concerns material things but that more is more valuable, that amount indicates dedication, that it proves interest or commitment. This isn’t to say that prolific writers and readers should cut back, only that there is more than one way to love something.

 

Here are the latest books I’ve read:

Shut Up, You’re Pretty by Tea Mutonji

Coconut Dreams by Derek Mascarenhas

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.


Zalika Reid-Benta is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared on CBC Books, in TOK: Writing the New Toronto, and in Apogee Journal. In 2011, George Elliott Clarke recommended her as a “Writer to Watch.” She received an M.F.A. in fiction from Columbia University in 2014 and is an alumnus of the 2017 Banff Writing Studio. She completed a double major in English Literature and Cinema and a minor in Caribbean Studies at University of Toronto’s Victoria College. She also studied Creative Writing at U of T’s School of Continuing Studies. She is currently working on a young-adult fantasy novel drawing inspiration from Jamaican folklore and Akan spirituality.