It’s been a year of transition and learning for this reader/writer/wanderer. Numbed by the most bitterly cold winter of my life and the culture shock that comes from moving between lives and worlds, I embarked on a mission to read a book a week for the entire year. After returning from Ecuador, I’d felt like a stranger blindly wandering through a life that wasn’t entirely mine; reading, I hoped, would help me learn something about why I couldn’t get back to myself, or rather, about the person I had become between leaving for Ecuador and returning to the States.
For a year, I read on the train and in the bus, in doctor’s offices and coffee shops and by the lake, while making dinner and waiting for friends, as I brushed my teeth before bed and during my limited lunch breaks at work. At the beginning, there were many successes; when it’s literally 50 degrees below zero, there’s not much to do other than read. Then summer finally, unbelievably arrived, bringing adventures with friends and family, months of 12-hour work days, entire weeks of binge watching House of Cards and Orange is the New Black on Netflix, and a fantastic new relationship that’s kept me wonderfully distracted. Now, as the temperature wanders back into the negatives, I’m finishing out the year with a total of 37 books, averaging a little more than a book every week and a half of 2014. I didn’t completely achieve my goal, but I did learn a lot along the way. Below are the biggest lessons I learned during my year of reading:
1. My threshold for finishing a book in a week is approximately 250 pages; on average, fear of flying begins at age 27; and the more you replay a memory in your mind, the more cemented it is in your brain.
You learn a wealth of interesting facts when throwing back a book a week. For instance, I learned how the use of memory palaces—or placing visual cues in a mental recreation of a familiar place—facilitates your brain’s ability to recall information. I learned what parts of the brain trigger and manage anxiety and a multitude of strategies for clearing such stimuli from an overtaxed brain. I learned how chickens are sexed. I learned about the history of machismo in Latin America and the altered mental state caused by mourning. I learned what vulnerability looks like in work, study, and relationships and why it’s important in all facets of life. I also learned exactly where in my commute I can balance on my tip toes just long enough to wrestle my book out of or into my bag, an important lesson when packed into a shifting, tilting, herky-jerky train.
As I paged through book upon book, I also began to see themes from previous books reappear time and time again, which brings me to my next lesson….
2. Everything is interconnected, or reading makes you a good conversationalist.
After a mere two months of my reading challenge, I quickly realized that the more I read, the more I had to say to those around me. I discussed the mechanics of memory with my coworkers and the science behind flying with my father who is an active sports pilot. With friends, I marveled over the dark, yet hopeful themes in Saunders’ short stories, themes that moved me to tears even while sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers on the L. As it turns out, my reading challenge was also great material for first-date conversation and an easy way to tell if I should pursue a second date.
Fun fact: I knew I’d snagged a keeper when my boyfriend confessed that the first book he checked out with his brand new library card was Pride and Prejudice. *Swoon*
3. No TV required.
Before I began my journey in reading, I spent a lot of time watching TV, particularly the low-budget reality trash that fills the MTV and TLC lineups. It’s a terrible habit that I’ve had since college. “No! You’re too smart to watch this trash,” my friends would moan as I turned on the latest episode of Teen Mom or Intervention. At the time, I told myself that I was simply giving my mind a break from studying and the literal hours of news I watched and/or read every day. (Little did I know that TV news media is just a separate but equally terrible and unconscionable form of reality TV.) When I returned to the United States, I also returned to my old reality TV habits. After my forced, long-term separation from reality TV while living in Ecuador, however, I couldn’t mindlessly consume the drivel without noticing how numb and stupid I felt afterwards or the way that society seemed to be lowering itself to meet the bad behavior I’d witnessed on my TV screen. I knew that to feel better in my own skin, I needed to rescue my brain first.
So I turned off the TV and picked up the books, and hot damn did it feel good! I could almost feel my brain cells regenerating with every new page. Of course, I always knew that I didn’t need TV, but the wonderful lesson was that I didn’t even miss it.* I went months without even touching my remote and this year I plan to cancel my cable completely. Good riddance!
*I’m counting House of Cards and Orange is the New Black as a different kind of TV here, since I feel these series hinge on the same elements you would find in a well-crafted story.
4. Some books shouldn’t be read in a week.
When I picked up Geek Love by Katherine Dunne, I didn’t realize that the book was nearly 400 pages long. I loved the riveting strangeness of the plot, the bizarre, yet relate-able characters, and the richness of the story…until I realized that it was nearly the end of the week and I still had 200 pages to finish. I dutifully forged through the rest of the novel, feeling exhausted and annoyed by the time I finished.
Towards the end of the year, when finishing 52 books was clearly unattainable, I began The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. With no deadline looming over me, I luxuriated in the detail, taking the time to truly contemplate the characters and let the themes percolate in my mind. It was absolutely liberating. This coming year, I’m excited to tackle the fat books that have been gathering dust on my bookshelf since my challenge started, because books are richer when you have the time to get completely lost in the story.
5. Reading begets more reading.
Before this past year, I hadn’t done much reading. Thanks to post-graduate school burnout and the pervasive idleness of Ecuadorian life, I’d forgotten what it truly meant to read for pleasure.
As Malcolm X said, “The ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.”
After my year of reading, I am more curious, more hungry for knowledge, more passionate about the world around me, and more connected to myself than I have been in a long time. Thanks to a regular regimen of reading, my mind has been fully reawakened, and I have never loved reading as much as I do today.
My increased book consumption naturally led to more online reading as well. I began with lists on good books for 20 somethings, then gradually transitioned to articles about gender, studies on language and memory, and interesting pieces on the mythical concept of work-life balance. As I went through the highs and lows of life, I looked to the written word for guidance. Disappointed and disheartened by the Hobby Lobby ruling, I reflected on Rebecca Traister’s I Don’t Care If You Like It, an article that I still think about with an ache of identification and a surge of determination. After discussing the sometimes dismissive attitudes of male colleagues, a friend recommended an excellent story from NPR, Can Changing How You Sound Help You Find Your Voice?, which empowered me and impacted the way I interact with my coworkers. Exhausted and overworked, I sought solace in I Came Undone and Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed. Anytime I needed a good read in addition to my designated book for the week, I also perused the always excellent Longreads blog.
As I mulled over these concepts, I also realized…
6. We are what we put into our brains.
I am convinced now more than ever that what we put into our brains dictates who we are and what we will become.
This sounds fairly obvious, but it’s easily forgotten when we just need an hour of mind-numbing TV or Facebooking to take off the edge at the end of the day. (See point #3.) As it turns out, Buzzfeed lists, crying reality TV stars, and Candy Crush Saga are easy to consume, but don’t offer the rejuvenation that we truly crave.
Within the first months of my reading challenge, I felt more creative and motivated to write than I had in years. Instead of plopping myself on the couch with leftovers and the TV remote/cell phone, I soothed my tired soul with words. The more I read, the more I wrote and desired to write. My brain was always tired, but, to my surprise, I always felt regenerated by the end of the night.
6. Minor failures do not constitute a total failure.
I may have failed at reading 52 books in a year, but I succeeded at feeling good in my skin again. Books offered me a form of escapism that didn’t numb me; instead it allowed me to examine myself indirectly through the struggles, joys, and life experiences of others, fictional or not. Through books, I found a way to work through the hard parts of my Peace Corps service and the new, sometimes unrecognizable, person I was upon returning. Of course, reading wasn’t the sole factor for my successful reintegration into U.S. culture. Reading grounded me; counseling and the unconditional support of family and friends helped me work through reverse culture shock and rebuild my life in the States. As such, I am eternally grateful for those who dedicate their lives to guiding others through their struggles, for the people in my life who love me through all the ups and downs, and for the writers who take on the risk and hard work of writing about the oddities, struggles, tragedies, mysteries, and complexities of life.
So what’s in store for this blog now that my year of reading is over? As I mentioned in a previous post, 2015 is the year of focus—on the right people, the right goals, and the right projects. This blog, fortunately, is one of the projects that I’ll be dedicating myself to this year. Thanks to a 1.5 hour round trip commute, I’ll have plenty of reading material to reflect on, and given that one of my many New Years resolutions is to finally write a collection of essays, I’ll have plenty of writing insights to share as well. To those who have been reading and commenting, thanks for taking this journey with me; I hope you’ll check back often.
Here’s to a productive and prolific 2015!
A One-Sentence Review of My Favorite Reads of 2014
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer—A quirky and insightful read about the mechanics of memory, the mysterious nature of the brain, carefully crafting our own perception of our lives, and the often-overlooked importance of forgetting.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion—Using straightforward and simple language, Didion portrays what it truly means to grieve and pay tribute to those we love in images that struck hard and stuck with me long after closing the book.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold—A magnificently crafted book about the eternal love between family and the horrors of life, portrayed in detail so real and vivid that I dreamt of losing my own sister for nights on end. (Note: That was the worst part of reading the book. This novel is truly excellent.)
Tenth of December by George Saunders—As usual, with great talent and mastery, Saunders shows us the best and worst of humanity, blurring the lines between bad and good and striking both hope and despair in the hearts of his readers.
1984 by George Orwell—Disturbing and impactful, this book made me realize that in a society devoid of freedom of speech and human rights, not even your personal thoughts and memories are safe.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green—A tear-jerker that felt more substantive than many other YA novels I’ve read and truly made me consider the differences between empathy, sympathy, and love, especially in the face of terminal illness.
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg–An encouraging, affirming, and comforting guide on why writing is important, how it spiritually nourishes us, and how to create a life that centers around a daily writing practice.
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Changes the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown—An insightful look into why vulnerability leads to greater self-fulfillment, better parenting, work successes, and more meaningful relationships and a practical guide on how to bring vulnerability into our everyday lives.
A One-Sentence Review of My Least Favorite Reads of 2014
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney—Another forgettable book about a self-pitying 20-something wallowing in drugs, alcohol, and despair.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro-Yawn fest.
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg—Although this book contained some nuggets of wisdom, I couldn’t get past Sandberg’s focus on working within the confines of the patriarchy to rise to the top or the in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time luck that contributed to much of her success and therefore greatly separates her from the majority of the working women that she aims to address and motivate.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Marukami—In spite of a very catchy name, Marukami’s book offers mostly train-of-thought observations and lacks the originality and insight that I expected and craved.