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Jenny Baker
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Editor’s Column: Did Reading Save my Mental Health?

Adriane M. F. Sanders

This semester has been different for me. Very different in fact, but not on paper. That is, my workload hasn’t changed—the ever increasing administrative and documentation-related work being pushed down from higher ed leadership onto their professors, the volume of emails and paperwork and hoop-jumping that is unrelated to teaching and mentoring students has not changed in the least. As I write this, I’m in that weird void between the end of fall semester and the week before Christmas (aka, the time when instead of relaxing I’m rushing around like a madwoman trying to make things merry and bright). By this time last year, I was so burned out I felt like I was watching the extended family gathering in my home from some place in the rafters, out of body, completely disconnected with no desire to interact. I know the holidays (or even just family) can bring out all sorts of emotions, welcome and not, but I knew these feelings were from the fumes I was coasting on after the semester had absolutely taken it all from me. I felt like a shell. And today, I don’t. Despite nothing changing in my day-to-day utter busyness during the semester all the way through to now, it has felt compartmentalized and generally kept in its place. I’ve caught myself saying what a good semester it has been more than once (even if you may have seen me frazzled in the office on any given day). Naturally, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s changed if it’s not reduced work demands.  I feel like at least some part of it is that I’m finally embodying some of the things I’ve been working on in therapy rather than trying to cognitively impose them, so that’s a win. But honestly, I think the biggest change I’ve made is consistently, unwaveringly, almost obsessively reading for fun. Let’s pause to let the collective <scoff> we all just let out to dissipate.

Here’s a little backstory. I have always enjoyed reading, since I was a kid (thanks mom!). When I got to grad school, I would still make time to read for fun, but not as often or consistently. As the semesters wore on, I stopped making time to read for pleasure. Scholarly reading was a huge chunk of my day to day, and by the time I was working on my dissertation, the last thing I was making time for was more reading. As an overachieving new hire, I was also not making time for anything else that required focus. Sure I would still buy books and even start them, but my nightstand had become a graveyard of DNFs (“did not finish”). Almost all of these books had also become some form of work—the titles I was now picking up all had to do with parenting and teaching. Without realizing it, I had not only lost the habit of reading for fun, but I no longer knew what was fun to read! What started as cautiously dipping a toe back into the waters at the encouragement of my therapist slowly became an utter deep dive. So much so, you could say I’m now just sitting on the bottom of the ocean floor with one of too many good books on my ever-growing TBR (“to be read”) list. AND I LOVE IT. After that initial return to books, I began getting impatient with how long it would take me to move from finishing one book to deciding on the next, and I felt like I didn’t remember how to find a book I wanted to read. I created a TikTok account just so I could get on #BookTok (a friend told me that’s how they found their next reads). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but have found it to be a wild, slightly unhinged, very welcoming, absolute community of readers of every kind—from casual to voracious readers, from the eclectic and genre-hopping bibliophiles to the highly opinionated genre, author, and even modality snobs. But I learned things from all of them, like some of the nerdy book lingo I’ve been using here and, more importantly, how to better recognize my tastes and preferences to help me find more books to enjoy. Posts like: “If you liked this, you’ll also like this” and “If you liked this but hated this character or trope, try this instead” are very helpful. And understanding the references in funny or contemplative posts about a character or something that happened in a book I’ve read (or reader reactions to those things!) make me feel like I am in a not-so-secret society.

That first dip back into books was December 2021, and slowly over time thinking about books, sharing books, and reading them grew back into a real hobby. Let’s call it “booking” because it entails more than just reading at this point. I’m reading 5–7 books most months. I’m not trying to achieve any goals; in fact, I do not have any goals related to reading other than to enjoy myself. I’m just actively engaged in tending this hobby as one might tend their garden, their model planes, woodworking, video games, or photography. And this whole process has taught me so much about myself in so many other regards. What began as an exploration of books has become a full on self-study to discover, redefine, and articulate all aspects of me. The curiosity and hunger I feel as I’m booking has also manifested in listening to new kinds of music and trying new culinary dishes even at places I frequent. The presence of mind I need in order to feel connected when I’m reading a story has shown up as mindfulness in the crux of a moment, allowing me to hit pause so I can check in with myself. Saying “yes” to completely indulging myself in booking simply because it feels good has led me to say yes to more things for the same simple reason.1 Recognizing that it is ok to have my own preferences for what I like to read and to unapologetically act on them has empowered me to prioritize other preferences more often.2

Who knows if this enlightenment, joy, dare I say “balance” will stick, but I will enjoy and appreciate it fully while it’s here, and hopefully muscle memory will kick in should I lose my way in the future. I initially thought about writing this column weeks back when I was in the shower and quite literally thought to myself, “Did reading save my mental health?!” But I think reading/booking could be exchanged for an infinite selection of other hobbies, indulgences, sports, any “activity” that stokes your enthusiasm, quells the quiet rage you may be carrying, and/or loosens your pressure valve. Maybe books don’t do this for you. What does? If you don’t have an answer to that, try thinking about things you used to enjoy or try something new as a solo expedition or with a friend. Allow yourself to explore possible outlets without the internal voice telling you there’s not enough time for another activity and avoid the urge to should all over this (i.e., I should do ___insert whatever activity you either don’t really want or that doesn’t fit with the rest of your life right now). Trust that you will find one that fits, and you’ll know it because it won’t feel like another to do; this should feel easy. And as you shop around, really try to study yourself during and after the experiences. Once you’ve found something that feels right, tend it. Take special care with it because it is giving directly back to you. I have (somewhat) jokingly thought, is this my midlife crisis? It’s not like one I’ve ever heard of before. I googled antonyms for “crisis” and ya know, a “midlife wonder” is much more apropos. We all need to spend more time unapologetically tending and indulging in self-wonder.

Cheers to 2024 friends!

Notes

[1] Did you know that the definition of hedonism is actually devoid of judgment and negativity?

2 Just today, I felt the oh-so-common pang of mom guilt for not doing something I physically could do if I put forth enough effort. As soon as I felt it, I thought, I matter too. She still feels my love and care for her, and I am still a good mother if I choose my preferences over hers.

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