Choose your own book

Reading for pleasure

Ok, first of all, I want to be as clear as possible that I’m not here to steal more of your attention. You’re starting your summer jobs or summer classes (or both), you’re busy graduating or moving or camping, and everyone wants you to read their blog and share informative articles about race and gender and politics and all the other important crap happening right now.

You should definitely still be doing all of that.

But your brain needs nourishment of all kinds. You have to sleep right, you have to eat right, and you have to balance introverted self-care time with extroverted social bonding. A good way to balance your reading obligations is to replenish yourself with the pleasure of reading.

I’m not here to convince you that reading’s good for you-you know that already. What I would like to do is persuade you to consider the act of reading as a fun experience in its own right, as well as a way of restoring all the dopamine that your brain spends on other mental activities like schoolwork and anger management. And I’ll tell you how.

Finding a book

It isn’t hard to find a book. I’m sure you have recommendations pouring in from all sides. This is Portland after all, and as a college student, you presumably have all kinds of literate friends and co-workers and professors.

There are several ways to winnow that list. First, buy used books and let your budget be your guide. Powell’s still has a pretty good selection of old paperbacks, and Goodwill always has an assortment of good stuff, but I encourage you to also visit a locally-owned used bookstore. There’s a great big beautiful mess of a bookshop on Southeast Powell by the fish market, Bingo Used Books, and another one right around the corner on SE Division, Longfellows.

You will never find exactly what you’re looking for in these stores, which is the point: If you allow yourself to graze, you will likely stumble across a good deal on a book, author you’ve been curious about, an old favorite you haven’t read since childhood or a sweet cover, by which you can indeed make a judgement.

And obviously, there is my favorite socialist institution: the public library. Again, this is Portland, so there’s a library every couple miles. PSU students have the Branford Price Millar Library right here on campus (check out their Dark Horse Comics collection), and Multnomah County’s vast and historic Central Library is just down the street. Commuters don’t fret; Beaverton has one of the finest libraries in the tri-county area, and there are a dozen or so all along the MAX lines. Heck, there’s even one out in Troutdale by the Dollar Tree.

Wander through the online catalog, and do yourself a favor and learn about interlibrary loans. They will change your life. Or go in and browse, physically. Get your meaty hands on some paper books. Feel which ones call to you with their special paper, unique fonts and deliciously musty odors.

Try searching for a specific set of writers—female writers, writers of color, non-European writers—and explore. This is how I discovered Octavia Butler and Nnedi Okorofor, two of my current favorites. And the Portland State Ooligan Press emphasizes publishing authors from marginalized communities.

Above all, don’t cheat yourself. Read what you like—and be honest with yourself about what you enjoy. Read a biography of your favorite band. Read the novelization of your favorite movie. Check out the latest Stephen King novel, the latest issue of Wonder Woman, Fifty Shades or whatever makes you smile. Indulge your guiltiest pleasures. I’m sure as hell not going to judge you.

Now, here’s the important thing, and this is crucial: You have to build yourself a nice little stack of books in your house to peruse in comfort. How many books? It depends, but you should probably have no more than 20, and you should definitely have an absolute minimum of five.

So now you’ve got this stack of books. What next? Which one should you read first? Whatever you want. Grab one that looks fun, the one that thrilled you the most in the library, the one with the sweet cover, the one that recalls childhood memories of late nights with a flashlight under the covers, the one your partner recommended, the one you were never allowed to read because it was too sexy, too controversial, too cheesy.

Choose a book from your stack

Hold the book in your hand. Savor its tangibility; its non-digital charm. Read the back cover and the cute little blurbs from other writers, and add the interesting ones to your list to check out later. Crack the book open and flip through the pages. Get your nose right in there and take a deep whiff.

Read a bit, from the beginning or the middle or the end. Whatever you want. Give it a few pages, up to a whole chapter. It will either grab you or it won’t. What happens next? If you want to know, turn the page and find out. If you just totally don’t give a flying fart, put it down immediately. If something about the book bothers you—the language, the characters, the narrative voice, the size of the print—put it down.

Never waste your time on a book you’re supposed to like or wanted to like because it’s famous or deals with themes you want to identify with or whatever. If a book doesn’t grab you, it’s probably not your fault, and it might not be the book’s fault either. Sometimes it’s not the right time. But be merciless. Put it down. Move on to the next one.

Work through the whole stack like this. It’s possible that none of them will excite you enough to keep going. If it feels like work, you’re doing it wrong. Stick with the one that’s fun, the one that keeps you engaged, keeps you up at night. You want to find a book that turns its own pages, a book that sinks its teeth in you and won’t let go until it’s done with you.

If this happens, forget the stack and just read on through. Maybe you’ve stumbled upon a long series (Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders series!) and fallen utterly in love. You’re in luck! You now have a whole bunch more of the same thing to read. Take the rest of that loser stack back to the library and check out a ton of McCaffrey (or whomever). That’ll keep you busy for a couple years.

Or, if you’re not the compulsive type, find the book that overwhelms you with its richness and makes you take your time. These books are wonderful, too, because they’ll keep you coming back periodically for weeks. You’ll read a chapter and put the book down to think about it for a while, then you’ll come back to that chapter and read it again before moving on to the next. Cherish these books. This is what classics are made of. I spent over a year reading Moby Dick and loved every minute of it (in fact it’s about time I took another voyage with good old Ishmael before I start knocking hats off people’s heads).

The really important thing to remember here is that you have to keep going, and you have to keep pursuing your own happiness. Whatever the subject, whatever the pace, you’ve got to skim as many books as it takes to figure out which ones you want to spend more time on, and which ones you don’t.

A time and place for reading

Let’s say you’ve whittled that stack of 10 down to two or three books you’re really into. Where and when are you going to read? To start with: everywhere, all the time, wherever and whenever you can. Read while you’re eating breakfast, while you’re eating lunch, over your afternoon coffee. Toss a paperback in your backpack and read it on the bus. Put a stack of comic books in the bathroom. Keep a nice thick biography or popular science book by the bed. Hide one away in your desk at work. Bury one under your favorite tree.

Get in the habit of reading when you’re bored, when you’re anxious, when you’re depressed, when you’re mad as hell and you can’t take it anymore. Fill up the empty spaces with books.

It will probably help if you make a conscious decision to put your mobile device elsewhere for a portion of your day, which is something you should be doing anyway. I plug my phone in next to the TV when I get home and don’t look at it again until the next morning. You don’t really need me to tell you this, of course. You know you’re a mobile device addict. Shit, so am I. We all are.

But this, as it happens, is exactly why it feels so great to read a book. Your brain, whether you realize it or not, craves a break from the busy black mirror. Give your brain what it wants, and it will reward you with increased creativity, improved concentration, and a rich, euphoric mental bliss that you can’t get from anything else legal.

I promise.