By Sara Fullerton
When I’m struck with the desire to read, I usually get overwhelmed by the possibilities. I jump to fruitless attempts to engage with that 400-page book that’s been on my shelf, unread, for the past three years. Nothing communicates my unrealistic optimism more clearly than the fact that I’ve schlepped books like this one along to the five different rooms I’ve lived in over that time.
My endeavor always turns out the same way. I read chaotically for five minutes, then decide I need to get back to my textbook or embrace something a little more mindless. Although I still have plenty of room for improvement in guiding my own reading, over time I’ve learned a bit about what actually works for me.
Maybe you have 100 pages of a textbook to power through before tomorrow. Maybe you’re scanning this article right now and wondering if you’ll make it to the end. When my time is limited, I waste a lot of mental energy grappling with what is the most “worthwhile” thing I could be reading. In the moment, my solution is simply allowing myself the space to try different things out for a short time. Only then I can learn whether or not they feel meaningful.
Reading a book is stepping into someone else’s reality for however many pages you choose. It takes you outside of your present moment while simultaneously expanding the limits of your reality. Quick reads like Cheryl Strayed’s “Tiny Beautiful Things,” a compilation of pieces from an online advice column, remind me of a perspective beyond my own preoccupations.
Strayed, author of the best-selling novel “Wild,” is less known for her past role as an offbeat advice columnist for The Rumpus website. Her advice draws from personal experiences, the antithesis of the general all-knowing, detached voice you usually associate with columns. She unfailingly cuts to the heart of whatever the advice-seeker is dealing with, so that her words never feel irrelevant.
The book is packed with eloquent remarks, sometimes funny, and always startling in their clarity. One such insight is, “Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.”
Books of poetry are another option that invite you to engage fully for a short time and walk away with fresh thoughts. Let these musings be a deep breath, offering some distance from whatever you might be bogged down with. One of my favorite poets is Hafez, the Persian Sufi master who lived about 100 years after Rumi.
In the words of translator Daniel Ladinsky in the preface to “The Gift,” a collection of Hafiz’s poetry, “To millions throughout the world the poems of Hafiz are not a classical work from the remote past, but cherished love, music, wisdom and humor from a dear companion.”
Some poetry requires a lot of mental exertion before the reader can come to any satisfying understanding of the content. Hafiz’s offerings are refreshingly straightforward. One of the most elegant sentences I’ve read is: “Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.” Another quote I love is: “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions.”
A final reading source I’ll mention here is Brain Pickings, a website where one woman, Maria Popova, has compiled an inventory of interesting and meaningful literature that spans genre and generation. Popova has written for publications including The New York Times and The Atlantic. On Brain Pickings, she offers her personal reviews on a vast variety of works, united only by her interest in them. Maybe her article will even guide you to your winter break reading list.
I hope you offer yourself the space to pursue your own reading this semester. In the words of Popova, “In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new ideas.”