Sometimes you just need an easy read. A good comfort book you can curl up with before bed. Sometimes you just need to re-read Anne of Green Gables (yet again) or a re-told fairy tale you know you’ll enjoy.
I know, I’m exactly the same way.
But there are times when I want to challenge myself as well. I often view my reading life in a similar light as my fitness life. There are times for that light, predictable comfort read—just like there are times for that refreshing stroll through the park. But there are also times to stretch and challenge myself in my reading—just like when I challenge myself to run that extra mile or sink deeper into the yoga pose that I can’t quite master.
Stretching myself in my reading can look different at different times. It can mean taking the plunge to read a really long classic that I know will take a good six months to finish. Or expanding into a new genre I never really delved into before—picking up a graphic memoir or an anthology of poetry out of the library. It can mean reading a book whose content is emotionally difficult, but very important. Or reading something in a style that will be difficult to read quickly (or to understand without a dictionary nearby)—a Shakespeare play or a Faulkner novel. It can mean reading a book by an author who is coming from a very different perspective from me, or who writes about content that is difficult to swallow.
I’ve found reading books that stretch and challenge me to be very rewarding. Sometimes it can be difficult. Sometimes books make me frustrated in ways I don’t quite understand, and I have to set them down and talk about them with someone else. But reading books that challenge me forces me to think and wrestle with new ideas and perspectives, and I always gain something in return for my effort.
I’ve been inspired in the journey of reading books that challenge me by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on The Danger of a Single Story. She talks about how confining ourselves to a single story about a person, a culture, or a place can lead to serious misunderstandings. She talks about how we give dignity to people and cultures when we seek to understand multiple narratives of their lives. As she puts it, “I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” If you haven’t already heard her talk, I would highly recommend that you do so. It was revolutionary in my thinking about this topic.
I’ve mentioned that just like tackling new fitness goals, there can be difficulties and challenges in this venture of stretching yourself in your reading. Here are a few of the practical ideas that have helped me as I’ve taken on this goal.
Read multiple books at once. If I only have one book going at a time, there is a high likelihood that it will be a pleasure read or a comfort read. I have to have a book for my bedside table—one that is predictable in how it makes me feel, and that I can read before going to sleep. I know this about myself, so if I want to have a challenging book going I know I have to balance it with an easier book that I’m reading at the same time.
Set aside some time. Particularly if I’m just starting a challenging book, I know that I need a certain amount of uninterrupted time to devote to it. I try to sit down with at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted time in front of me when delving into a new challenging book, preferably with a notebook and pencil nearby to jot down notes, quotations, and thoughts.
Have someone to talk with. I find it very helpful to have someone to talk with about challenging books that I’m reading. New thoughts and ideas from challenging books get muddled in my head unless I take the time to sort through them by discussing them with someone else.
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