In “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” as excellent a book about wordcraft as has ever been set to paper, Stephen King says, “Books are a uniquely portable magic.” I’m inclined to agree. After all, no matter where you are, you have company if there’s a book at hand.
Through them, you can escape from the world. You can also learn about other cultures, moments in history, and venerable people. And best of all, you can use books to learn something about yourself. For instance, my summer reading list this year taught me a valuable lesson about living with MS.
I’m a pretty voracious reader who tries to take down 40 to 50 books each year. My goal is to read at least one work from several genres (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, graphic novels/comics, and memoir), and one must be a “classic” I’ve never tackled before. The lucky book this year? Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville (1851). It’s one of those books that everyone assumes I — a former English teacher and full-time editor — know intimately. But other than the oft-quoted first line and the ending (thanks to Major League), I knew precious little about this masterwork of American literature.
I started the book on our vacation in June, planning to have it read before I returned to work the following Monday. No dice. It took me six and a half weeks to slog through the entire book, minus the whaling dictionary. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a fine novel full of lovely prose and compelling characters, but there are also a lot of “info dump chapters” to get through. And if you’re not in the mood for them, well, good luck.
But don’t think I’m a slow reader. Far from it. This past weekend, I shot through the three books in The Bone Season series by Samantha Shannon. That’s roughly 1,360 pages — more than twice the length of Melville’s novel. I devoured those books whole, shoved them in my gaping maw and gobbled them down by the greedy mouthful. They made 12 hours in a car pass like magic.
Are these novels masterworks? Probably not. But they are well-written and engaging works of fiction, and that makes them worth my time as a reader. They reward me in a way “classic literature” simply cannot. Hence, I pick both kinds of books for different reasons and in different seasons of my life, and both serve a worthy purpose.
If I only read “fluffy” fiction, my mind would never be challenged. Nothing would force me to think critically about the book or the world around me. The brain is a powerful organ; this is something MS patients know full well. But it requires constant “exercise” to remain strong, and reading great books is one way to keep the brain limber.
Books help improve memory and empathy, improve focus and increase critical thinking skills. That’s why “War and Peace,” “Love in the Time of Cholera,” and “Swann’s Way” are all on my “to read” list, and books including “Jane Eyre,” “Heart of Darkness” and “Dubliners” are among my all-time favorites.
Now, that being said, I also believe in giving myself a break. I can’t jam work and growth into every sliver of spare time. There has to be time to take a deep breath — to stop, look around, and get one’s bearings. Reading is a great way to relax and unwind, and there’s nothing better than falling head over heels into a good book that allows me to forget myself and the world for a few precious hours. I firmly believe that some days, when the fatigue is too great or I’m experiencing sensory overload, crawling into comfy clothes, hopping into bed and reading myself to sleep is just what the doctor ordered.
Living with MS is all about balance — respecting the illness without letting it control your life, remaining active without pushing yourself too hard, and committing to things that will keep you socially engaged without depleting your energy. Reading helps keep me mindful of that need for balance and helps me find it my life. By finding the right mix of works that challenge and those that delight, I can enjoy every moment to the utmost.
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