Sweethearts, we are at a crux. COVID restrictions are lifting, but that doesn't mean everyone feels ready to resume life as we knew it. I've heard from readers already mourning the loss of quiet spaces and time to read, and from others who can't wait to attend in-person events. Some folks want to break out of a year-long habit of "easy" reading, but I've also heard from a lot of people who haven't cracked a book in 14 months. It's clear to me that everyone is trying to establish where their comfort zone starts and ends while dealing with the fracas of an entire, often discordant society doing the same. How do we be patient and kind, with ourselves and with others, while still moving in a positive direction? Here are some of my favorite recent letters on the subject.
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Dear Aunt Paige,
An unexpected silver lining of social distancing has been getting more quiet time to read. Now that life is beginning to pick up speed, I’ve been wanting to create a private space I can sneak away to when I just need to get lost in a story — and away from my housemates. Do you have any recommendations on how to go about building one?
love this question! What you need, my dear, is a reading nook, those hammock-y hidey-holes stuffed with pillows and fairy lights that allow you to escape from the world. Luckily, with a little imagination and elbow grease, you can build one even in the smallest of spaces.
If you have a window seat, voilà
, you're done. Add one of those fake furry blankets, hang a beaded curtain, and escape into paradise. For those without window seats, you can convert a spare closet into a nook by adding in a bench, a high shelf, some cushions, and a beaded curtain. And if you’re like me and building anything elicits moderate panic (plus, what's a spare closet?), fake it by putting all of your junk under the bed and adding a beaded curtain to your now-empty closet. Throw some pillows on the floor and grab a flashlight: Hello peace and quiet.
Don't have a closet or other spare space? Any corner can be a cozy corner. Use a big cushion or bean bag, hang a hammock chair or swing, or drag in that armchair your neighbor just put on the curb. Add a corner lamp or lantern, a small fuzzy rug (even bathroom mats work), hang a gauzy canopy and a plant or two, and you'll feel like you're tucked away. This isn't the best space for a beaded curtain, but your Aunt Paige won't judge you for trying.
I find the Internet to be the best resource for building ideas, but I love thumbing through books like A Well-Crafted Home
, The Little Book of Living Small
, and anything by the adorable ladies behind the Beautiful Mess blog
and craft guides
. Another source of inspiration for me are Pete Nelson's gorgeous treehouse books
Good luck! Auntie expects a photo of your new reading nook.
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Dear Aunt Paige,
Reading was always my comfort zone, but this past year, it’s been really hard for me. I don’t have the concentration, and I just haven’t been able to handle conflict and tension — which are essential elements of storytelling — even when it’s fiction. How can I get back to this activity that’s always been so meaningful to me?
You are most assuredly not bad! So many of us have been feeling this way. One of my own go-to activities during this tumultuous year has been listening to audiobooks
. I find that I can relax and concentrate more by letting the book pour directly into my brain.
But there are lots of ways to get back into books. Try rereading an old favorite. It’s a wonderful way to remember all the reasons you loved to read in the first place — and bonus: no worries about tension because you already know how it ends. Try graphic novels. Alison Bechdel’s The Secret to Superhuman Strength
, for example, is a dense memoir but the graphic storytelling makes it an engrossing and easy read.
Short story collections, too, can be great when you don’t have the bandwidth for more involved tomes. So can the kinds of books that are easily read in fits and starts, like Anthony Bourdain’s World Travel
, which can immerse you in its descriptions of food and friends and atmosphere no matter when you pick it up. And speaking of delicious things, foodie mysteries may have conflict and tension — and the more-than-occasional dead body — but they’re generally light and lots of fun. Vivien Chien’s Noodle Shop Mysteries
are my current favorite. And narrative food writing, like Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking
, is interesting, engaging reading material with no conflict at all.
Lastly, try developing a soothing reading habit. Maybe choose a particular time of day, a particular place in your home. Curl up with a favorite pillow and a warm cup of tea. Put on those fuzzy socks. Stretch out on a lawn chair in the backyard. Or build that reading nook (see above).
But most of all, lambkin, don’t fret in the times when reading eludes you. Reading is an old friend. Sometimes it can seem far away. But it will always come back.
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Dear Aunt Paige,
Unlike most of my friends, I've read more voraciously this past year than I ever have before. The problem is that I've only been able to read romance and mystery novels. They have been so helpful for taking me out of my own head, but now I am feeling guilty for reading so much fluff. I know should start reading literary fiction and nonfiction again, but I just can't seem to do it. None of those books are holding my attention. Do you have any tips for getting back into serious reading?
First of all, stop feeling guilty. Unless you are a student or you are very
serious about your book club, there is no such thing as required reading. If fluffy rom-coms and hard-boiled detective novels are what have gotten you through this seriously bad past year, there is nothing wrong with that. Celebrate the fact that you were able to read this past year at all! That is more than a lot of us bookworms can say.
From your question, it sounds like you might be looking to expand your reading horizons because you think you should, rather than because you really want to. Your Aunt Paige highly suspects that might be the cause of your attention problem. There is nothing that turns reading into drudgery faster than assigning it to yourself as a chore. Read what interests you now and let your genre selection expand naturally. If you loved literary fiction before 2020, that love will come back to you when the time is right.
If I am wrong and you are feeling like you are ready to jump back in and read some literary fiction or nonfiction because you know those books will be amazing
, then here are some suggestions:
Genres are not cut and dry and there is a lot of overlap! Try reading a book that falls on the cusp between your current comfort zone and the genre you are trying to expand into. Try literary mysteries like The Shadow of the Wind
, The Secret History
, White Tears
, or The Yiddish Policemen's Union
or literary romances like Tipping the Velvet
, Call Me by Your Name
, or Normal People
Set up a buddy read with a friend. Having someone you can talk to about all the juicy details can make the reading experience more fun and you can hold each other accountable to a reading timeline. If you don’t have a friend with similar reading tastes but you spend a lot of time on the Internet, try an online discussion group. Recent releases like No One Is Talking About This
, Detransition, Baby
, or Klara and the Sun
and upcoming releases like Malibu Rising
are almost guaranteed to spark fascinating discussions.
Finally, cut yourself some slack. Reading isn’t a competitive sport. Give yourself permission to give up on anything that isn’t working for you. A book can be amazing and still not be the right one for you right now, or possibly ever, and that is okay.