Welcome to the Book Nerd’s Guide to Life! Every other week, we convene in this safe place to discuss the unique challenges of life for people whose noses are always wedged in books. For past guides, click here.
Friends, we do not live in optimistic times. Turbulence is all around us. The news is nothing but a depressing parade of horrors. It’s easy in these times to turn to books to escape, to plunge onward into fictional worlds unknown or to retreat into well-worn favorites. And I think it’s worth saying up front and in bold: It is perfectly all right to escape from time to time.
But if there’s anything I believe, it’s that reading fiction is about more than just escapism. Likewise, reading nonfiction can be a necessary window into the familiarly unfamiliar. Books can change the world through the minds of their readers. If you don’t believe that, I invite you to sit a spell and listen as I extol the virtues of what Hermione Granger has done for the young women of my generation.
If you don’t see how reading can save the world, consider what you can do with a good book—and then please consider my suggestions a helpful starting place on your quest.
Seek Out New Voices
It’s entirely too easy to fall into a reading routine, going back to the same genre or author time after time. Why fix something that ain’t broke? But if you fail to branch out to new authors, new genres, or new subject matter, you’re missing out on thousands of insightful perspectives and life-changing voices.
Diversifying your reading habits is about more than picking up a graphic novel every once in a while, and, unfortunately, it can sometimes take a little hunting. But find authors who don’t look like you. Read books about topics that make you uncomfortable. It’s a nice exercise in empathy, and, you know, it’s another excuse to pick up excellent books like these:
- Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, by Matthew Quick
- Ms. Marvel Omnibus, Vol. 1, by G. Willow Wilson
- Challenger Deep, by Neal Shusterman
- We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Learn from What Has Been
History repeats itself, again and again and again. But if history falls in a forest and no one’s around to read it, did it really happen? It’s best not to test that theory, because the answer is yes.
Arm yourself with knowledge. Swath yourself in context. Read about all that has come to pass and may come again, whether it’s racial violence, systemic discrimination, or the dangers of nationalism, as in these fine books:
- Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff
- March: Book One, by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
- Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann
- Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
- The Cove, by Ron Rash
Understand What Is Now
To continue our tour of turns of phrases, remember that what’s past is prologue. Getting insight into this moment—the reality we inhabit, even if we don’t want to admit it—is another of reading’s gifts. It’s a gift in the same way going to the gym is a gift. In the words of Ron Weasley, “you’re gonna suffer, but you’re gonna be happy about it.”
- The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
- Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance
- If I Was Your Girl, by Meredith Russo
- The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez
Realize What Might Be
There is a reason we return to dystopias time and again. Even if we wish it were not so, we can see parts of ourselves and our realities in these bleak worlds. Even the most outlandish premise has a ring of truth, which is why 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale are enjoying some of their best sales in years.
When we are at our lowest national moods, we can take a perverse sense of comfort in the apocalyptic. We gobble up scenes of chaos and angst, because inevitably the sun comes out again. Hope wins a minor battle. History bends toward the good.
So it’s important to indulge these desires. They complete an arc, even if the novels themselves end on ambiguous notes:
- Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler
- The Postmortal, by Drew Magary
- Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
- Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer
- The Penultimate Truth, by Philip K. Dick
Take Care of Yourself
When it feels like the world is closing in on you, books can make for wonderful self-care, whether you prefer fiction or non. Reading is the very definition of taking some “you time.”
If that means rereading The Babysitters Club in its entirety, so be it. You do you. But I have other suggestions if you’re looking for something a little different to open your mind or calm your mood. They do the trick for me.
- The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore
- Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, by Joshua Foer
- Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones