As I kid, I couldn’t read enough. Books were my escape, and the characters in them my friends. I would spend most of my pocket money in a bookstore. Each book I finished was a personal conquest, placing it like on my ever-growing bookshelf like I would a trophy on a mantel.
But somewhere along the way I fell out of favour with the reading. As I got older, it almost didn’t seem like an option to pick up a book and if I tried, I’d never finish it. I was too distracted, too unfocused, and to be honest, I really just wanted to scroll mindlessly on my Facebook feed instead.
It got to a point where I probably hadn’t read a new book in almost 5 years. I made excuses that I didn’t have time to read when really I was choosing to spend my time rotting my brain on social media instead.
What had happened? Like a long lost friend, there was a comfort in reading that I remembered, and sorely missed. As the New Year approached I set myself a challenge – a resolution of sorts: to reconnect with reading. I’d make myself read one new novel by one new writer every month. 12 books in the calendar year – and finish every single one. This is what I learned.
If social media was rotting my brain and giving me the attention span of a fish, then reading brought back some much needed discipline into my life. At first it wasn’t easy. I’d read a page, pick up my phone, or re-read the same page and then thumb my way through the book so see how many pages until the end of the chapter. My mind wouldn’t focus on the words in front of me. It would wander to other things, and before I knew it my phone was back in my hands. Eventually that changed. I stopped consciously thinking about how I needed to finish the page or chapter and became invested enough in the story that I’d have read 20 pages – or more – without noticing.
In the early days I would often have to make myself read when I would rather not. Just like sitting down to write, starting the reading process was the hardest part and the words flowed off the page soon thereafter. Because I’d set a goal to actually finish a new book each month, in the beginning it gave me something to focus my efforts.
Books were the ultimate escape and helped forget any of my stresses and ultimately unwind. This routine became vital, as reading gave my some kind of structure when I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. The ritual of sitting with a cup of tea on the back deck, listening to the birds with the weight of a crisp new novel in my hands, I soon discovered was incredibly comforting.
The prospect of reading after a long stressful day, or simply the prospect of having nothing else to do but read, was the ultimate escape. A bad day could always be somehow defused by reading. It might not have solved all my problems, but it took me away from my thoughts, and that was sometimes all I needed to reset.
Not every book I read over the year was always engrossing, (Under the Tuscan Sun I’m looking at you!) but more often than not I enjoyed each of the stories in their own right. Was I just lucky in my book selection? Maybe, but I suspect that almost every book has a lesson to learn, something to celebrate, and something to take away.
While I gave myself a month to finish a book, more often than not I would finish it in a week or two, and start the next book before the next calendar month. In doing this I made a revelation: I had found something worthwhile that I looked forward to. This was one of the biggest gains for me. There had been times in recent years where I felt like I had no interests and no hobbies. Rediscovering reading changed that. Finding something I looked forward was massively enriching and a boost to my overall sense of happiness.
Like going to the gym, finishing a book made me feel like I was doing something good for myself. In the way watching a movie could not, getting through a book required a certain commitment. Even if the book didn’t set my world on fire, there was something I could take away from the story, something to think about, learn, or consider, which made each book have value.
Reading also activated my mind and memory, as I had to remember characters and plots. It also just felt worthwhile. It wasn’t an academic text, but with each work of fiction, I was taking away new ideas, or learning about history, relationships and the human condition.
The deception of the Catholic church in Post-war Ireland in Philomena, the second world war through the eyes of two children from different backgrounds, the process of healing, letting go, and learning to love again. These were all some of the weighty themes of books I read last year that have stayed with me, long since they’ve been placed like on my bookshelf.
I read 10 out of 12 books that I had intended that year, and got about halfway through Under the Tuscan Sun. Part of my stubborn self was disappointed I didn’t reach my ‘goal’, but I also knew it didn’t matter. The number of books I needed to read by a certain time was arbitrary – just a guideline to get me back into the habit of reading. I had gained so much through reading regularly again.
A year later, I’m still reading new books, still getting that same sense of satisfaction when I finish the last page. It might be small in the scheme of things, but reading – as I instinctively always knew, is incredibly elevating. Making time to pick up a book – and put down the phone, changed the way I enjoyed life.