To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Reading, like any other activity, has its ups and downs. Reading is joy, solace and happiness. It can also feel like a chore, a to-do, a task in the service of something else. My own experience in keeping the balance between the pleasure of reading and extracting the full benefits of reading is to read what I need, at any point in time (we talked about mindful reading here). Usually, I read to a plan and schedule, but I do happily abandon plans, often enough. But then there are weeks where you let go of plans and read to my heart’s desires.

Read with the times
Everywhere I look, I am confronted by top-ten lists of Pandemic-related books.

For the last five weeks, I’ve resisted the temptation to pick up any of those, until I finally gave in, and re-read Camus’s The Plague. This book needs no introduction – an account of life in Oran, a city in Algeria in the middle of a deadly epidemic. I was struck by how beautifully Camus captures the absurdity of life, its irrationality, and human reactions to things beyond our control.

The book reaches its epitome of eloquence in Rieux’s thoughts, almost towards the end of the plague, when the town had begun rejoicing over the imminent freedom from pestilence:

“But what had he, Rieux, won? All he gained was to have known the plague and to remember it, to have known affection, and to have one day to remember it. All than a man could win in the game of plague and life was knowledge and memory.”

A sobering thought, but relevant nonetheless. Instead of pointing to Pandemic-related literature (as the Plague being the only one I have read myself), let me point to some good lists instead.

Tip #1: When you find yourself in a reading rut, perhaps because you are in the middle of a hard book or the noise around you is too hard to ignore, give yourself some permission to read whatever you feel like. And if you don’t feel like reading anything, maybe just pick up whatever everyone else is reading, or talking about reading, even if it is not your genre or your type of book.

Read to travel

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

Dr. Seuss

Most of us are trapped in the four walls of our home, and we are looking forward to venturing out. It feels uncouth to complain about the lack of travel – but as they say, “To see the world is to love the world.” Now more than ever, I feel love for our world. I feel a deep gratitude for our fellow beings, those who are in the critical services that keep society going and those who are staying at home. I feel an empathy and compassion across borders best ignited by hard and intense shared experiences. Just because we can’t physically transport ourselves, it does not mean we can’t learn and experience other cultures and places.

I turned to the next best thing to seeing the world – to read about the world. I picked up Patrick Jered’s “Finding the Demon’s Fiddle.” Part travel-writing, part detective work and part exploration of mythology, the book is about the writer’s journey to find the origins of Ravanahatta, a predecessor to the violin, and invented, supposedly by the Demon King Ravana.

Jered manages to interleave philosophy, mythology and humor in a long book that feels surprisingly short. Imagine yourself in an old colonial house in coastal Sri Lanka when you read this:

“Colombo House had an off-white silence, like a Proustian sense of regret; a faded youthful decadence – not quite managing to feign responsibility in its old age. Its huge room with tall ceilings and period furniture whispered the conversations of long past.”

It is a book to savor, to absorb, and let yourself go along in the obsessive quest of the writer to get to the bottom of the mystery of this ancient instrument.

Tip#2: If you are feeling walled off physically, let your mind wander the world by picking a book about a place that you would love to visit – perhaps a place that was in your summer plans for this year, or perhaps the place hardest to reach on your bucket list. Or perhaps pick up a book about a place where you’ve already been and relive the memories and be surprised by things you may not have noticed when you were there. Here are some recommendations for interesting reads about interesting places.

Read to re-live:
Interestingly both the books I reached out to this week for comfort were books I had read previously. I wanted to read something that I knew for sure that I would enjoy, something that fit my mood just right. There is no way to be sure of that unless you had read it before. In a way, it also meant I didn’t need to read the book sequentially and entirely as I would do on a first read – I dipped in and out, and I read my own highlights and notes. A book like  Finding the Demon’s Fiddle would have taken me a while to read from beginning to end, but going through parts I curated helped me remember and re-live the experience in a shorter time.

Recently I have been experimenting with highlighting the favorite passages of my books and revisiting them. It feels as if someone who knows me intimately (my own past self in this case) has carefully curated the best parts of my favorite books, and even left me little notes on how that relates to my life and thoughts – the best of the best, personalized, just for me. Now, isn’t that a luxury!

Tip#3: Highlight passages, sentences or even just phrases that you find striking. Most ebooks have a feature to add notes to your highlights too. Take the time occasionally to review and savour your annotations. I am often surprised by the new perspective that I get on a re-read, either because it is the second or third read, or because I am just reading it in a different context which gives a new meaning to the text. In my experience, this works just as well for fiction as for non-fiction. Repetition has proven to be one of the best ways to retain knowledge, the more often you review, the more you get out of your reading.


If you would like to get more tips to be a better reader, download our practical guide – Read It Right. Free for all subscribers!