Shopping for Your Literary Medicine Cabinet

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch.

 

What do you read when you need to cope? Or do you?

Haley Stewart, author and host of the Fountains of Carrots podcast, published an ebook called “The Literary Medicine Cabinet: A Guide to Self-Care through Good Books.” The books in the cabinet are the comfort reads one can return to again and again. Somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books are published every year in the US alone. To be sure, wherever you are emotionally, there is a book for that. But how do you start?

 

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It was some time around college when my reading habits diminished. In a graduate school with graduate reading, I picked up The Witch of Blackbird Pond, then The Island of Blue Dolphins, books I have loved and read again and again since I first met them in the 4th Grade.

Scott O’Dell led to Dickens and I traveled the way through my first pregnancy, graduate school classes and humid Virginia summer with friends I hadn’t seen in years. It relaxed me, refreshed me, and kept my head on straight for future studies.

Then the baby came and books went by the wayside. It was survival time.

 

In “The Literary Medicine Cabinet,” Stewart makes the case that we need to make time for reading as we would other types of self-care. Indeed, when I finally returned to those old friends, it was at a time in my life when I needed it most.

 

At the side of hospital crib, I read Zelie Martin’s letters in A Call to a Deeper Love: The Family Correspondence of the Parents of St. Thérèse. How greatly she suffered for her children in their births, deaths, discovered abuse and lastly, that she should leave them prematurely when she learned she was dying of breast cancer. “Life is short and full of misery…we’ll see them again Heaven.” I needed a woman who understood.

I read books that inspired the parts of my soul that could have died in crisis. The creative part, the artist, the one who seeks beauty. I read A Million Little Ways by Emily P. Freeman and I found a purpose for my day-to-day beyond answering questions about my son’s medical condition.

 

Kristin Lavarnsdatter was the oar that pulled me back to literature, to a healthy escape, to feelings the feels without the weight of feeling. From there, the list of books read and books desired to read only grew.

I discovered both new books from podcast recommendations and checked out books from authors I had heard about but never read. In between, I picked up books I read in high school and remembered liking.

I discovered the grotesque intellectual fodder through O’Connor and the bawdy but loveable, easy-reading characters of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. The sequel to Cannery Row, Sweet Thursdays, saved me from a no good horrible very bad day.

And as everything both slowed down and sped up, I came to a new place in my journey, when it was time to begin to look back and remember the things that were not quite a tidily tied with a ribbon in my writing. I read Grace Like Scarlett and Forgiving God, allowing myself to walk back through the madness of the miscarriages and the ache of memories from hospital hallways. Could I have read this in the midst of the heartache? I do not think so. At the right time, they were part of healing.

 

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The books that can help through times of trial are as varied as the resources outside the page. You may depend on therapy (self-help books), spiritual direction (spiritual, Christian living, inspiration books), hobbies (in my case, writing and design, possibly science, technology or athletics for other types), exercise and time outdoors (literature set in faraway places) and relationships (great literature).

Stewart’s Cabinet is filled with the books she returns to again and again. Mine is a mixture of the new and the old, the related and unrelated, the inspiring and the dream-making. It takes a process to find the ones you love, the authors you love, but little by little, setting aside time as you would for physical therapy, counseling or showering, you will get there. And you will find new remedies along the way.

 

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Discloser of Material Connection: I am a freelance writer for the Hughson Chronicle. As such, this is a “sponsored post,” reprinted with permission. The company who sponsored it compensated me via a cash payment to write it. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers.

A Book Bug

Recently published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch.

In my childhood room, directly across from my bedroom door, were units of cabinetry and shelves that spanned the length and height of the wall. As long as I can remember, those shelves were filled with books. I picked out the copy of the Bible and thumbed through the strange Old Testament stories. Three hundred The Saddle Club books filled an entire shelf.

In my parents’ remodeled barn, there stands a double-sided bookcase, as tall and wide as the wall of a room (or wider), overflowing with books. My dad and I stood out in the barn as he showed me books in Greek and Latin, leather-bound 100-years ago. Behind the bookcase, I discovered boxes of Mad Magazine and “Jeremy Thatcher Dragon Hatcher,” along with the rest of my sister’s Bruce Coville books.

We regularly traveled to the Modesto and Turlock branches of the library (prior the Hughson branch’s existence). Before I could read, I rotated through the “Oz books” with their wild and original illustrations.

The Saddle Club gave way to Dickens, Bronte and Austin. The wall unit was eventually removed in the spirit of remodeling. My memory is haunted by a book I repeatedly checked out of the library about a unicorn that sleeps in a cave to recharge her magic. I will never remember the title.

The premise of the book “Bored and Brilliant,” by Manoush Zomorodi, is that we need to allow our minds to wander in order for them to work to their vast potential. Technology and social media pull us in, triggering shots of dopamine so we feel a fleeting sense of accomplishment with each ping and “like.” Photographing endless numbers of images with our phones saves brain space when we want to remember something, but makes our memory-function lax, so we become less skilled at remembering in general. We lose time and deep conversations. Relationships suffer when phone addiction grows.

For all the benefits technology offers, and they are many, nothing beats the charm of an old-fashioned book.

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For children who are bored, books are a gateway into a world of wonder. My 7-year-old aches to escape her noisy siblings, so she picks up a book curious to discover its contents. Under interrogation, her clearest understanding of why she loves “Charlotte’s Web” is simply, “because I like it.” Indeed, it is only looking back now as an adult that I see books were my escape, my world away from the world. They opened horizons and foreign lifestyles before me. And they filled the time.

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According to Richard Norquist at Thought.co “Deep reading is the active process of thoughtful and deliberate reading carried out to enhance one’s comprehension and enjoyment of a text.” While most internet reading aims for 5th-grade level comprehension and promotes skimming or superficial reading, reading long works of increasing difficulty flexes parts of our minds, requiring more from us.

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In this demand for our effort, the book moves our thoughts from the oft-inward focus to an investment into something external, to a degree, risk-free. Focusing outward can reduce the habit of ruminating common to anxiety and depression. The risk the reader runs in this investment is care for the created characters (because it hurts when the book ends or the characters suffer). That care develops empathy. Increased empathy enhances real-life relationships.

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It doesn’t sound easy, does it? With the world at our fingertips, in order to grab hold of the benefits of delayed gratification and hard work, we have to learn to say no to some things in life. I choose to shop at the fruit stand not only because the produce tastes better, but because it is good for me to have to wait for peach season. I choose to read because I know I will ultimately enjoy it more. I choose to close my laptop and get offline because I know it dulls my mind. I have to allow myself and my children to get bored enough to become curious about the world around us.

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Reading regularly is like exercise. When you exercise you feel the benefits even when you are not engaged in it directly. Perhaps you are sprightlier when you get up from your chair. Maybe your shoulders hurt less. When I read regularly and deeply, I feel a mental spark throughout my day. I am learning to cherish that spark enough not to let myself fall back into the mindless internet skimming between books.

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Some would say the love of books is hereditary. My father valued books. For the generation before him, books were not easy to come by, because of their cost. I value books. We have a wall of books in our home, continuing the tradition. “Why do you like to read?” I asked my daughter.

“Because I’m a book bug,” she chirped.

Book Review Overview

I have devoured books this summer at about the same rate as our great girl has devoured those chicken men mentioned in Friday’s post. Initially, I focused on reading spiritual/inspirational material during the day in small doses and fiction at night.

After attempting to read The Evidential Power of Beauty by Thomas Dubay with children in the same room, it seemed better to switch my concept to light reading during the day and heavy reading at night. Dubay went the way of the nightstand.

Since then my review of And Then There Were None, my evening books consisted of Kristin Lavarnsdatter, The Loved One, The Birth of the Republic, and, now, The Evidential Power of Beauty. My day books were The Memoir Project, The Art of Slow Writing, and The Magnolia Story. The more you read, the easier it becomes to read more. This list is not a standard by which every person should read.

Kristin Lavarnsdatter.

Ah, Kristin, you fool. This was my second reading and a much more lucid reading than when I first read it. This epic book is set in Catholic Medieval Norway where it is common to practice, and yet, not to practice Catholicism. Our hero makes some bad choices for love. The genius of the story comes in the realistic emotional fall out of those choices. There is no moralizing here, just an illustration of what happens when love fails to mature. We are creatures moved by good and bad inspirations. The author, Sigurd Undset, is a master at identifying those subtle movements of personality. Want to leave Netflix but do not want to miss the drama. Try Kristin. This Netflix original intelligence, not Party of Five. I highly recommend it for those who are not afraid of commitment (1200 pages).

The Loved One.

The Loved One

This is satire…hilarious, morbid, British satire. If you cannot handle dark humor, do not pick this book up. In this story, we see the commercialization of death through the mortuary business. The ending pushed me a little far (two suicides occur during the span of the book). If you liked The Royal Tenenbaums (I laughed out loud as Ben Stiller asked another character about whether or not he wrote a suicide note), this book is for you. I cannot recommend it for everyone.

The Birth of the Republic.

Birth of the Republic

In July, my son’s hospital admission was more serious than others of late. That circumstance prevented me from writing about a remarkable gift we received: two donated tickets to the hit musical Hamilton. With revived historical interest, I picked up a book from junior year, U.S. History, taught by the extraordinary Mr. Wayne Hinds. I remembered liking this book, which reads more like a narrative than a text book. The book is very good, reminding me that there are many stories to tell from this period of history. Hamilton’s is one. This book answers the question of “how did this new country come about?” focused on what forces led to it: what perceptions, what ideas, what events furthered those ideas. It is half events and half ideas, an understanding approach that we do not need to dismiss our American heroes because they were also men. The author points out that these ideas were new. Even if they were not ready to take those ideas (like equality) all the way to their natural conclusion (abolish slavery, equal vote) we do not have to assume the beliefs were lies. High school level, so good for adults who have not read history in some time.

The Evidential Power of Beauty.

Beauty

I have some progress to make on this yet. I love it thus far. The first section is a remarkable treatment of the concept of beauty, what makes a thing beautiful (across subjects), and what makes a thing ugly. The second section demonstrated the many awesome things in creation.

Day Reading.

To share on another day.

Better than Netflix

This article to appear in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch.

I started and put down In this House of Brede, Brideshed Revisited, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Shakespeare’s Complete Works (do not make the mistake of starting with “Titus Andronicus”). I read Flannery O’Conner’s Manners and Mystery, a quick read about writing. Still, I wanted something I could sink my teeth into. As an adolescent, I read for hours. Those worlds of Austin and Bronte were my worlds. I relished the characters and the stories, though many things I did not understand. Dissatisfied in my quest for another novel, I decided to turn to an old standby, Charles Dickens. This is how I met David Copperfield.

750 pages. And I finished it, 750 pages later. At first, I attempted to read during the day. I found little progress or pleasure amid the interruptions. So I took my reading to bed, without the phone or computer or children nearby. For one to two hours I read, ten, twenty, fifty pages. At times, it dragged on in the labor of Mr. Macawber’s monologues. Other times it flew, and I felt drawn into the love of Agnes, the heroism of Mr. Peggoty and life lessons of Mr. Copperfield himself.

To leave these characters is more than leaving a habit. When one engages in deep reading of great literature, the characters come to life. You know them. You love them. You are as sorry to leave them as it seems they may be to leave you, at the end of such a long novel. I rush to the finish, and relish the satisfaction of a Dicksonian ending, but I am sorry to have no more.

This is the way in which deep reading can teach empathy. We are brought along someone’s journey, asked to walk in their shoes, as Ms. Hepburn defines the term in the movie Funny Face. Reading occupies the mind in a way watching a movie cannot. The time it takes to know these characters, and in classic literature, to see them grow works in our minds as relationships in real life. You not only feel what they feel, you strive to anticipate what may happen, based on the events and personalities you observe as you read.

Watching movies and even very good television is a passive effort. After enough seasons, you may know and feel attached to those characters. Discussions of the particular Netflix show will drive that connection even deeper. Nevertheless, the encounter itself does not settle as deep in the mind as it does with reading.

It is a priceless effort. But how can one find the time or space in which to engage it? Consider the time you spend online or watching television. There may be some space there. I am too tired, we say, I just want to relax. What truly relaxes us? A drink in the evening may seem to relax us, but it can negatively impact sleep. Social media and television helps us vegetate. Passively feels like it should relax us. Yet it does not. The screen lights, the noise of electronics, cannot calm us interiorly.

What is the next objection? I cannot find anything I want to read. This is a difficulty. The hot right-now novel may read easily, and may engage you, but to truly gain the great benefits of reading, one must read a great work. In a classic literature, characters are more deeply and thoroughly formed. Thus they can come alive and stand on their own feet. In lesser novels, a screenwriter can flesh out these people. In well-written books, no movie can satisfy the conception our mind has made.

Find recommendations where you gain. Love good period TV? I recommend Dickens. Love female driven romantic comedies? Try Austen. Love Sci-Fi? H.G. Wells has goodies for you. Pick up those high school novels you vaguely remember reading half of. See what you think now. They are an excellent place to start. The American cultural cannon possesses many great books.

In the way of novels, I do not know what I will read next. But having broken the habit of a nightly binge watch I am excited to find what other places my mind can go, and the characters on the journey.

Sophia Kramskaya Reading