I still remember, with absolute clarity, the day I decided to give up reading.
I had just left my college adviser, who, upon looking over my upcoming schedule for the spring, pronounced that once the semester was over, I’d graduate with a degree in journalism.
“Really?” I said, absolutely astounded.
Not always the sharpest pushpin on the bulletin board, I sat for a moment to take it all in. “Really?” I repeated.
In my defense, that reaction was understandable.
I had already spent more than five years at two different four-year universities, banging and bouncing around between three dissimilar majors. On top of that, I’d taken a year off to attend the famed Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Clown College, and then became a professional Big Top buffoon. And, whilethat particular journey provided lots of valuable lessons, none of those life skills translated into college credits. So when I returned to school after the road, getting a degree seemed light years away.
Yet that time would soon arrive—and with it, the shiny promise that after decades of required reading, I would no longer be forced to open another book, ever, ever, ever.
A few weeks later, though, I realized that I might want to rethink this no-reading rule.
First, I recognized the fact that I’d probably want to keep reading, and here’s why: with professors no longer dictating book choices, I would finally be able to read what I wanted. This, of course, made all of the difference in the world.
Second, and I didn’t have to dig deep for this one either, I couldn’t help but read: I was hardwired to be a bookworm. I also knew that wasn’t going away any time soon. Indeed, I had received my first library card in first grade and have been current, no matter where I’ve lived, ever since.
So it was that I began my post-college reading with restraint—choosing a handful of magazines and newspapers. This made perfect sense because most of the articles were short and to the point.
I soon discovered Bob Greene, the famed columnist for Esquire; he became the reason I bought that publication every single month. Too, in preparation for my move to New York City, I was soon gobbling up The New York Times, and for my weekly alternative fix, The Village Voice.
These days, I’m still reading… and happy to report that books returned to the mix a long time ago.
I’m especially attracted to big fat tomes of short stories and essays. I’m particularly fond of those by Joan Didion, the greatest essayist in the world; Joyce Maynard, who, wonder of wonders, is a Facebook Friend, and the late, great, remarkable Nora Ephron, who not so coincidentally, once penned the essay Reading is Everything (part of that delightful prose is here, at www.goodreads.com/quotes/146811-reading-is-everything-reading-makes-me-feel-like-i-ve-accomplished. Her long-ago first husband and I also once shared a kiss, yes, on the lips. But that’s really another story for another day.)
Of course, there are plenty of other fave genres.
Always on the alert for well-written memoirs, The Glass Castle has become a beloved book. And maybe because of my background as a television producer who put together a lot of true crime stories, I still enjoy a good Ann Rule read. And, no matter how many times I read it, I continue to find Fatal Vision by Joel McGinnis an absolute page turner. Put the two genres together and you have the wrenching Lucky by Alice Sebold.
Like every voracious reader I know, there’s also my favorite book.
You’ll probably recognize its author—Ira Levin, famous for Rosemary’s Baby. But a lesser known Levin novel from 1970, This Perfect Day, is flawless in every way. A futuristic thriller with scores of twists and turns, I inhaled this several-hundred-pages book the first time in one night; it was that good. Every few years, I take out my tattered copy and go through its heart-stopping pages again. (Here’s a summary, at www.amazon.com/This-Perfect-Day-A-Novel/dp/160598129X)
Yup, I am definitely one contented girl clown when I crack open a book of my choosing.
But now, besides the already-known benefits of reading, such as mental stimulation and vocabulary expansion, it turns out that those of us who read a lot can be something else.
Boarding the reading train, it turns out, can also help us heal from traumatic events, and may even make us happier.
These ideas aren’t new.
In fact, they’re all part and parcel of a type of mental health treatment called bibliotherapy, first used by ancient Greeks.
In broad strokes, it means the practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic effect. Often, today’s professionals doing this sort of work see clients in the midst of major and minor calamities, such as a career rut; nursing a broken heart, or feeling unsettled about upcoming parenthood. With the latter, for instance, a reading therapist might lend his patient a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, because the protagonist, Atticus Finch, is the perfect father in nonfiction.
What’s also very cool about bibliotherapy is that it can take many forms.
There are literature courses for prison inmates and reading circles for seniors suffering from dementia. For some, it can mean a one-on-one session for lapsed readers who want to enjoy books again but can’t find their way back to the train station alone. (If I’d only known about this, my reentry back to loving reading would have come much sooner.)
Here are a few more benefits for us readers: opening a book for pleasure has also been shown to put our brains into a pleasing, almost trance-like condition. In fact, it’s a feeling much like meditation, and even brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers also sleep better; are less stressed, and have lower rates of depression than non-readers.
So, while it took a while for me to find my way back to the reading train, I’m so glad I did.
My advice for today? If you have a library card, use it. If you don’t, go get one.
Is reading a part of your life, and if so, what’s your favorite book or books? I look forward to hearing from you!