I finally realized something last year—I don’t sit still unless I am reading. And maybe that’s one of the primary functions it has served in my 48 years—reading slows me down.
More and more, we are learning that reading isn’t about downloading information (as this awesome podcast wonderfully explains), but about what happens to our brain in the process. The synapses that fire, the memory that’s strengthened, the empathy that’s generated, and the quiet relationship with ourselves that’s cultivated. In other words, we read for formation and transformation, not just information.
I read 60 books this year. As usual, I’m doing a roundup of favorites, and my criteria is, “What is sticking with me?” Looking over my list, it’s clear some books slid right off me. Maybe they weren’t relevant to my life, maybe they were poorly written, maybe I was distracted while reading them. But some have hung around, and those are the handful I picked.
If you want to read more in 2023, it won’t happen by accident. There are so many shiny, loud things vying for our attention, and sophisticated algorithms and marketing strategies purposely keeping us from the kind of focus reading requires. (For more on this, I recommend Johan Hari’s Stolen Focus, one of my top picks this year.) If you want to experience the joys of reading more this year, I recommend a few strategies:
- Embrace finitude. You can’t read a lot and do everything else—have a clean house, never let anyone down at work, have a packed social calendar, go to all your kids’ volleyball tournaments. I have been known to stay home from sporting events just so I can read, and my kids still think of me as a pretty good mom. In fact, I think it’s made me a better mom.
- Create an enticing pipeline. It’s really hard to jump in if you feel overwhelmed at all the choices. Have a list going or subscribe to a few feeds or newsletters that review books. A few pipeline-fillers for me are my local bookstore (yay for the amazing Village Books!), this incredible end-of-year list on NPR, and the New York Times.
- Fall in love with the library. I reserve actual physical books using the app on my phone and make a trip downtown about once a week to pick up holds and make returns. Walking through those automatic doors and over to the holds shelf actually gives me goosebumps sometimes. And shout-out to the Bellingham Public Library for doing away with fines a couple years ago. It’s made my experience even better.
- Force yourself to ditch screentime. Get a box that locks up your phone for a set amount of time. Or give $20 to a friend and tell them if you don’t read a book in the next 6 weeks, they can give that money to a charity whose cause you hate. I know these things sound extreme, but I think that’s what we’ve come to. Walk through any airport to see what I mean. The more time you spend on a screen, the less you will read, and the less you will want to read over time.
- Figure out your jam (and own it!). Mine is historical and modern fiction, psychology, spirituality, literary journalism, and memoir. I don’t push myself to stray much outside those—there’s plenty to read without feeling bad that I don’t read more sci-fi! If romance novels are your jam, just read those!! Love what you love.
Okay—here are some faves:
- Still Life, by Sarah Winman. Beautiful, surprising historical fiction set in London and Florence. Makes me realize that I long for more stories that don’t depend on violence to deepen the plot and characters.
- The Exiles, by Christina Baker Kline. More historical fiction, 1860’s England and Australia, women convicts. You know how I love a good deprivation story.
- The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig. A reality-bending novel about suicidal ideation, of all things, and the pull back to our imperfect lives.
- Horse, by Geraldine Brooks. I lugged this fatty hardback to my vacation because Geraldine Brooks is always, always worth it. Civil War, a Black boy, his horse. Divine.
- Divergent Mind by Jenara Neremberg. Maybe nothing has changed my perspective more this year than reading this and some other books about the neurodivergent spectrum. Just as we all look physically different from one another, we all have different brain types. The more we understand this, the better our workplaces and relationships will be.
- Invisible Child, by Andrea Elliott. A NYT reporter follows a homeless family for eight years (!!), with searing insights on race, class, poverty, the nonprofit industrial complex, and childhood trauma. Will change the way you see every unhoused person.
- The Book of Hope, by Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams. I loved Doug Abrams’ Book of Joy with Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, and this one is a close second. Transcribed interviews with Jane Goodall on curiosity, love, climate change, and staying connected to a dying planet.
- The Deepest Well, by Nadine Burke Harris. The former Surgeon General of California on her discoveries about how childhood trauma affects health and the nationwide movement that started as a result. Blew my mind.
- The Myth of Normal, by Gabor Maté. He quotes Dr. Harris (above) and many more of my heroes in this masterpiece, linking childhood trauma to illness and the toxic cultural forces of violence, patriarchy, poverty, colonialism, and racism. It’s heavy, but also hopeful. Genetics determine less now than they ever have. If environments are the problem, they can also be the solution.
- Know my Name, by Chanel Miller. A victim of sexual assault tells her whole story, and my assumptions and stereotypes were challenged at every turn. Deeply changed me.
- In Love, by Amy Bloom. A wife beautifully tells the story of her husband choosing Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) after a diagnosis of early dementia. I also had a friend with a similar story this year. The two together have caused me to think about death in a radically different way.
- The Buddhist Enneagram, by Susan Piver. Another Enneagram book!! This one really stuck with me. Much fewer stale descriptions of type and more of an invitation to co-create this incredible, mysterious tool.
- Stolen Focus, by Johann Hari. See above. Urgent, timely, eminently readable. Johann Hari interviews experts from around the world on the attention economy and how we are being scammed, and he does some experiments on himself. My screentime has taken a sharp dive since reading this book.
Here’s to a year of discovery and transformation, friends!
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