Reading Changes Your Mind

Friday, April 24, 2020

Photo: Megan Loreto

Reading Changes Your Mind
by Megan Loreto 

My childhood bedroom is a small library of my creation. Aside from a bookcase with two rows of books stuffed onto each shelf, the shelves of my desk are chock full of color-coordinated spines. Beneath my window, on my bedside table, on the carpet, atop my dresser, piles of books collect dust. 

I rarely visit home these days, which means I rarely get to use my little library. Still, every time I move—which has been nearly five times in the past year—I reevaluate the books I bring with me. It’s a sort of ritual behavior, I suppose. I have always used books to help me create and understand my own identity. Picking out books force you to confront questions about yourself. Who I am now? What do I want to become in the future? 

This year Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous have accompanied me to several of my homes. They sit on my desk and wait, patiently, for me to pick them up and read them. 

It can be difficult to carve out time to read as a university student. I spent most of my high school years escaping into the refuge books provided from the sometimes dull and depressing world. But as a student and double-major in two reading intensive subjects, reading regularly is a habit I find increasingly difficult to maintain. Reading for my enjoyment always seems to get pushed to the last priority behind my less pleasant required reading list. 

Today, more and more of my friends seem to be approaching me for book recommendations.

“I used to read all the time,” they say. “Back in middle school, I used to love reading. I don’t know why I stopped. I wish I read more.” 

When I ask them what stops them from reading now, they often say that they don’t have much time or that they don’t know where to start or that they just find it hard to concentrate these days. I understand. A decreasing attention span is part and parcel of our hyper speed world. Besides, scrolling seems so much easier most of the time. 

What I know perfectly well is that the scrolling I often revert to as a coping mechanism for the rushing of my mind does not make me feel better. It overwhelms me more. It distracts me from the hyperactivity of my mind, rather than truly calming me down. At my worst, when I feel myself at the precipice of overwhelming anxiety or unsteadiness, I remember to turn to books. To this day, they are my most poignant means of—not only escape—but access. They offer access to the many worlds outside of my head, to the many lives and experiences of all of those people I will never meet.

In more ways than one, I rely on books. I rely on them to guide me, to offer help, to take me elsewhere. And they can do that for everyone. Books are one of the most powerful tools we have as far as connecting with one human experience to another. Additionally, the power of books is not just limited to the emotional or intellectual formation of the individual. Reading uses a different part of your brain. The actual, physical connections in your brain change when you read. There is scientific evidence that shows how we lose these connections when we only read content produced for sporadic internet consumption. If you want to know more about this concept read The Shallow by Nicholas G. Carr. 

My head feels clearer when I read regularly. My thoughts are calmer. I can move through stories quickly. I have different ideas to think about throughout the day to occupy my thoughts, different characters to worry about rather than myself. 

Think about that immersive world you sink into when you can get into the flow of reading a good old fashioned book. Maybe you haven’t felt that way in a long time. This is my shameless plug for reading, but I want you all to have access to every world you can dream of, into the endless depths of the information and experiences we often only ever scratch the surface of as it races across our feed and back into the ether. 

Sometimes I believe there is also a sort of guilt that comes along with not having read for a while. This has washed over me too when it has been a while since I picked up one of the books I selected in a more aspirational frame of mind. Books can be like clothes you had to have that you never wear: the ones that hang in the back of your closet. My rule for that? Either put it on or donate it. Same goes for books. If you’re never really going to read that book, give it to someone who will (donate it to the public library!), and find one that you will want to read. If you feel a little bad, it’s no one’s business that you’ve never read 1984 anyway. 

So here are some suggestions to get you started finding books you might like. Look for something you identify with on the list below. Go to the library, read the first page of the book, see if you like it. Check it out and let it sit on your desk. Let it wait for you if you have to, but read a few pages sometime. Here and there. Now and then. All at once. Who knows. 

Some reading suggestions: 

If you liked The Great Gatsby
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles 

If you are just a little bit of a romantic: 
Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

If you think Catcher in the Rye was under-appreciated by your friends in high school:
Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

If you think Pride and Prejudice (2005) starring Keira Knightley is a cinematic masterpiece: 
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen 

If you like never quite got over your Greek mythology phase: 
Circe by Madeline Miller 

If you want to go to Paris: 
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway 

If you are frustrated with politics: 
Call Them By Their True Names by Rebecca Solnit

If you know nothing about apartheid in South Africa: 
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

If you are a feminist or if you don’t understand feminism: 
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay 

If you had a Beatles phase (that means everyone) read: 
Just Kids by Patti Smith (and then M Train and then everything else she has ever written) 

If you like being moved to tears: 
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr 

If you like poetry: 
Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong 

If you want to be best friends with me: 
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath 

If you haven’t had your heart broken in a while: 
Atonement by Ian McEwan

If you think you don’t like reading: 
the book that the movie-you-think-looks-really-good is based on before it comes to theaters. 

Now, I may or may not have just created a list of some of my favorite books, but in all seriousness these are a good place to begin if you don’t have any other frame of reference. Start with short books, short stories, a poetry collection. Don’t start with the book version of a movie you have already seen. The most joyful part of reading is being blindly led through a landscape you don’t recognize. If you start a book you don’t like—quit reading it. If you remember loving a book, see what else that author has written. If all else fails, reread something you used to love or send me an email and I’ll send you back a recommendation I think you might like. 

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