Reading as self-care

a blue book on wooden table with the text 'reading as self-care: what to read when the world feels overwhelming'

I’ve been meaning for months to write a blog post about the benefits of reading as self-care. For obvious reasons, now seems as good a time as any.

Reading has always been my go-to activity.

Worried about something and need to know more about it? Read a book.

Worried about something and need to distract myself from it? Read a book.

Need to shut out the white noise of the world and remind myself how to focus on one thing at a time? Read a book.

Heaps of time to kill – at home, in a waiting room, while travelling? Read a book.

It has been clear from watching the stress levels rise across my social media feeds and in-person communities over the last few weeks that not everyone has tuned in to the life-changing magic of books yet.

That’s reasonable. We are living in exceptional times – for those working in frontline jobs, on casual contracts, or as freelancers, there are financial pressures that accompany the COVID-19 pandemic that can’t just be wished away. For those personally affected by the virus, there are even more pressing things to think about.

But for every one of us, for our own wellbeing and mental health, it’s important to have a way of taking the occasional break from the strangeness of it all – from the pressure, the panic, and the 24-hour news cycle. Books are one of the most accessible ways of doing that.

There is an abundance of information online about easy ways to access books right now. Even as public libraries are forced to close, their collections of ebooks and audiobooks are available free and online. Cambridge University Press are making textbooks available for free in HTML format. For kids, World Book Online have just made 3000 ebooks and audiobooks available for free. By the time I’ve hit publish on this post, a quick Google search will likely bring up half a dozen other companies who have done the same.

Closer to home, neighbourhood free little libraries are still a great first port of call (although if yours has a rapid turnover it might be worth giving the cover a wipedown and leaving it for 2 or 3 days before you get stuck in). If you have the means, many small, independent bookshops have started offering free delivery – a perfect way to keep yourself entertained and support a local business at the same time.

Similarly, many publications have been running open threads about books to readbooks that provide hope, books that let you switch off from the world, books to inform and entertain.

This post is my attempt to make some personal recommendations about the books that are working for me right now. I’d love to know your own suggestions in the comments below.

1. Re-read your old favourites

This will be different for everyone, but what are the books you’ve read in the past and LOVED? Those ones you know so well that you can recite entire paragraphs by heart. For me, it’s The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk, and Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire. I’m going to be pulling all of those off the shelf for a re-read over the coming weeks.

2. Read books about nature

Everything feels urgent at the moment. It’s so easy to get caught up in the flood of new information. I’ve been finding that getting out for a walk every day, breathing in fresh air, taking photos of the trees and watching the waves has been a big help in keeping me calm and maintaining a sense of perspective. But I know that nature isn’t as accessible to everyone.

The next best thing is to read books about the natural world, as a reminder that life has been going on for a long time, and will continue to do so. Recent reads that I’ve loved in this genre include: Poacher’s Pilgrimage by Alastair McIntosh, which is set on the islands of Lewis and Harris and weaves together history, geography, theology and memoir; Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey; The Salt Path by Raynor Winn; The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd; Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J Lee; The Wild Remedy by Emma Mitchell; and Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie.

(Here’s a more in-depth post about women’s nature writing that I wrote last year.)

3. Read books about big issues

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel is one of my favourite books of all time. Dealing as it does with the aftermath of a worldwide pandemic, it might be one you want to hold off on reading for now… or perhaps not! I find it a really hopeful novel, and one that makes me appreciate the importance of connection and the resilience of human communities, so perhaps dystopian fiction is the way to go.

Other great reads if you want to go down that path include: New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson; The Giver by Lois Lowry (my kiddo’s teacher encouraged him to read this one a few weeks ago and he’s loving it); The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; or 1984 by George Orwell.

4. Read romance

What absolute pleasure and delight romance novels bring to millions of people – it’s truly one of the most underrated genres in publishing. Romance has come a long way since the Mills and Boon novels that I used to sneak out of the library as a tween – contemporary romance novels can be funny, smart and exactly what you need when the world feels like a dumpster fire.

A good place to start would be The Lost Love Song by Minnie Darke, published earlier this month by Penguin (and featuring a couple of poems written by my husband!). Alternatively, try Jillaroo by Rachael Treasure, The Bookshop on the Shore by Jenny Colgan; or one of the earlier novels by Freya North or Marian Keyes.

5. Read memoir

It’s no secret that I love memoir – what could be better than having a proper sticky beak into someone else’s life?! If you don’t feel up to tackling a weighty novel at the moment, memoir is a lovely way to keep reading – many take the form of essay collections, so they can be easier to dip in and out of than other non-fiction.

Favourites of mine include: The Yellow House by Sarah M Broom; Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay; The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy; Insomniac City by Bill Hayes; The Outrun by Amy Liptrot; My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff; My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul; Things that Helped by Jessica Friedmann; Constellations by Sinead Gleeson; Notes to Self by Emilie Pine; Maid by Stephanie Land, and Homing Instincts by Sarah Menkedick.

Some brilliant essay writers who have published collections that include an element of memoir but also tackle much broader subjects include: Rebecca Solnit, Fiona Wright; Olivia Laing, Leslie Jamison, Sarah Manguso; Rachel Cusk; Teju Cole and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

6. Read poetry

Perhaps you don’t even have the attention span for memoir at the moment, in which case I’m going to prescribe you a poetry collection for dipping in and out of. I promise there’s a lot more to poetry in 2020 than whatever you were taught at school! If you’re not a regular reader of poetry, an anthology is good because it allows you to get a sense for different styles and see what you enjoy. The brick-sized A Poem for Every Day of the Year would be a good place to start, or you could sign up by email to The Writer’s Almanac and have a new poem delivered to your inbox every day.

But if you’re not intimidated by stanzas and similes, and you’d rather just focus on one poet at a time, some accessible poets that you might like to explore include: Hollie McNish, Maxine Beneba Clarke; Simon Armitage, Billy Collins, Carol Ann Duffy, Luke Wright, Kate Tempest, Sharon Olds, Norman Macaig, and Liz Berry.

7. Read uplifting books

In the last year or so, I’ve read several books that have been hard to categorise beyond the fact that I’m just thrilled they exist. They are books that have made me feel really, really good.

Included in this list are: all three of The Moth collections, which bring together the best of the stories told at The Moth’s spoken word nights around the world; The Book of Delights by Ross Gay, which is part-poetry-part-essay collection about things that make him happy; and Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, which pulls together her best advice from the Dear Sugar columns.

8. Read kids books and YA fiction

Even though my son is now 10, and more than capable of reading independently, we have a family tradition of reading Harry Potter books out loud on weekend mornings. We have just started Book Six, and things are feeling ominous…

YA fiction is now a world away from what it was when I was a kiddo. There is so much more choice, and many recent successes – The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Wonder by RJ Palacio, Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee, and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo all spring to mind – have been as popular with adult readers as they have with younger ones.

There is real joy to be found in reading some of the classic books that you may have enjoyed yourself as a child. Goodnight Mister Tom, Charlotte’s WebLittle Women, and The Secret Garden are all still on my bookshelf, as are collections of Garfield and Snoopy cartoon strips. But if you’re seeking out some YA books to get you through this tricky time, maybe consider supporting a newer writer too.

9. Read fiction that draws you in and won’t let go

Chatting on Twitter this week with Kate from Read Tasmania, we agreed that compelling fiction is really necessary at the moment. Sometimes you need to take a break from your own story and escape into someone else’s.

If you’re looking for the kind of fiction that’s hard to put down, some authors to check out include Sarah Waters, Tayari Jones, Barbara Kingsolver, Holly Throsby, Emily Maguire, Ashley Hay, Elizabeth Gilbert, Liane Moriarty, Lucy Treloar, Zadie Smith; Kate Atkinson; Tim Winton and Anthony Doerr.

A few specific novels that have really grabbed me in recent years are An Equal Music by Vikram Seth; The Silver Dark Sea by Susan Fletcher; Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng; Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossom by Anita Heiss; Americanah by Chhimamanda Ngozi Adichie; and The Overstory by Richard Powers.

10. Read something that makes you laugh

A funny book is perhaps the hardest recommendation to get right, because sense-of-humour is such a personal thing – it doesn’t obey any of the usual rules. I’ve had friends recommend books to me on the basis that they were laugh-out-loud funny, and I’ve found myself on the last page having barely raised a smile.

But you will know yourself what makes you laugh. Is it the wry humour and absurdity of Jon Ronson or Louis Theroux? The tell-all tales of Nora Ephron, Jenny Lawson or David Sedaris? Perhaps it’s Adam Kay’s cringe-making reports from the obs and gynae ward?

Whatever it is that tickles your funny bone, now is the time to seek out that book and put it to good use. Laugh long, laugh loud, laugh often… and I’ll see you on the other side.


Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

6 thoughts on “Reading as self-care”

  1. I liked the Vikram Seth book too. I also loved Amy Liptrott, The Outrun which I found very moving and un-self pitying in its description of suffering and mental illness. Thank you for this. Glad to have found your blog.


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