Philip Larkin's "A Study of Reading Habits," is the ironic difference between slang and formal language. The formal language in the title, implies the poem is about a research paper, possibly about drawing conclusions of people's reading habits. Instead, the poem is the confession of one man whose attitudes toward reading have slowly diminished to the point where books are nothing but "a load of crap" (543). The poem is not about the man's reading habits, but the reality of his life.
The poem is patterned in three stanzas having a rime scheme and a basic meter. The stanziac division of the poem corresponds to the internal structure of the poems meaning. In the three stanzas the man is at three stages of his life: a schoolboy, adolescent, and adult. The order of the progression is told in the first lines of the stanzas using the words "when" (543), "later" (543), and "now" (543). The "now" (543) is when the man is an adult recalling his two earlier stages.
The boy he remembers in stanza one was unhappy, both at home and at school. Perhaps small and picked on by other kids, he probably had poor grades, and was scolded by teachers. He found an escape from reality through reading. The books he read were tales of action and adventure, pitting good guys against bad guys, that are full of physical conflict, and ending with victory for the good guy. These tales helped him build a fantasy life in which he identifies himself as the virtuous hero. In his imagination he beats up villains twice his size, thus reversing the situations of his real life.
In stanza two the man recalls his teenage years, when his dreams were sexual rather than being buff. True to his prediction of "ruining my eyes" (543) in stanza one, he had to wear spectacles, which he describes exaggeratedly as "inch-thick" (543), which became a further disadvantage to his social life. To compensate for his lack of success with girls, he invisions himself as a Dracula like figure with cloak and fangs, enjoying a series of sexual triumphs. His
reading continued to feed his fantasy life, but instead of identifying with a heroic character, he identified with the glamorous, sexually ruthless villain. Philip Larkin puns on the word ripping, "had ripping times in the dark" (543), implying both the British slang meaning of splendid, and the violence of the rapist who rips off the clothes of his victim.
In stanza three, the man, now a young adult, confesses that he no longer reads much. His accumulated experience of personal failure and his long familiarity with his shortcomings have made it impossible for him to identify, even in his fantasy world, with the strong virtuous hero or the potent villain. He can no longer hide from himself the truth that he resembles more closely the weak secondary characters of the books he picks up. He recognizes himself in the
undependable "dude" (543) who fails the heroine, or the cowardly store keeper who melts under the bad guys. Therefore, he has turned to a more powerful means of escape, one that protects him from dwelling on what he knows about himself: drunkenness. His final words are memorable, so unpoetic in a traditional sense, and yet effective in characterizing himself, "get stewed, books are a load of crap" (543) he tells himself.
"A Study of Reading Habits" is ironic. It presents a first-person speaker who has been unable to cope with the reality of his life in all of its stages and has therefore turned toward various means of escaping it. His confessions reveal his values going from good to evil to sodden indifference; this downward slide in life, both in his reality and fantasies, is shown by a change in his reading tastes, from adventure stories, to sexual novels, to not reading at all. The attitude he has toward reading is ironically reflected in his life which is now "a load of crap" (543).