Reading During Difficult Times

In the last couple weeks I have found myself pinned between the return to work and busyness after the relative quiet of the holiday season and a national crisis. I hit a point last week staring at a stack of partially-read books feeling the existential anxiety of not having enough time to read all the books I want to read combined with a profound indecision over what was even the right thing to read right now. I felt the familiar refrain, “What is it that I should do with my one wild and precious [reading] life?” (If the ghost of Mary Oliver will forgive me.)

Faced with such a quandary, I saw a handful of options.

Image by Elias Sch. from Pixabay 
  1. History

Reading about the lives of people during real times of challenge—whether in fiction, history, or memoir—can build a sense of kinship across time, a recognition that humans have faced and gotten through other challenges and we can get through our current ones. When I was reading Ninth Street Woman I often found myself comforted and inspired by the resilience of these people living through the Great Depression, World War II, and that war’s conservative, anti-human backlash. And not only that, people kept making art during these times, embracing poverty and struggle in order to paint. I’m sure Joan Mitchell would cuss me out for the inspiration I took from these women and their cohort but the feeling was true all the same.

2. Pure Escapism

Another approach is to go hard on books that have no clear cut relation to the present moment. That could be romance or friend books where you know everything is going to work out in the end or genre fiction where the protagonists face problems such as trying to save the Winter King or riding dragons against earth burning meteorological phenomena. Right now The Graveyard Book* by Neil Gaiman is scratching that itch for me, taking me far, far away from the world of here and now.

3. Embrace the Problem

I don’t read books about the chaos of the Trump administration or the rabbit hole of online, fascist conspiracy theories. For me, such books are only a deeper form of doom scrolling and I decidedly do not want to spend my precious, limited reading hours like that. However, choosing to embrace the problem can work for me, particularly if no fairy tale in the world can pry my brain away from the present moment. This approach, which is not my usual, worked for me last week during my bout with indecision and paralysis. I found myself toggling between pieces from All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions to the Climate Crisis and the poetry collection An American Sunrise* by Joy Harjo and feeling connected to and inspired by people thinking, creating, working, and loving toward what they believe in.

4. Eff It

Those of us who identify as readers often feel as if reading can answer any of life’s challenges. But you may find that your brain simply does not have the energy or focus for reading at times. When that happens, free yourself to watch a show, play a video game, listen to a podcast, color a swear word coloring page . (No joke, that is super cathartic!). Reading books is, essentially, my favorite thing to do in the world. I consider “reader” a core part of my identity. But I just happy-cried my way through the end of The Good Place for the second time in less than a year. I fell into a dream playing the mesmerizing puzzle game Gorogoa. And I’ve been having a delightful time revisiting old favorites discussed by smart women on the That Book was BONKERS podcast. In short, give yourself some slack and remember it’s your time, your life, and you should enjoy it.

Whatever you are doing to get yourself through the recent and coming days and weeks, I do hope you are taking good care!

*Thanks C&N and ME!

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