An Open Apology to the Non-Fiction, Self-Help Genre

Hi, my name’s Nicole, and I’m a reformed non-fiction, self-help book hater.

Previous blogs may make it seem like I hate non-fiction, especially of the self-help variety. It’s not that I hate it, it’s that it’s not what gets me fired up when choosing books. At least it wasn’t until last year.

What broke my stubborn streak? Once I started reading more, I wanted to add a wider variety of books – including those for personal and professional development. Upping my reading habit coincided with a new mental health diagnosis and the start of a new job. Since I had a lot of novel things to figure out, I thought I might as well add some self-help into the mix.

I learned that while there’s a lot of fluff out there, there’s also a lot of good advice that my stubborn ass was finally open to taking in. Here’s what I’ve found separates the worthwhile ones from the junk.

Well-researched

If you’re trying to convince me an idea works, you need to give me the proof. Any book that comes in with reputable studies and pertinent real-life examples to back up its claims is already far and ahead of some of the “best” self-help books I’ve read.

There are two ways these books fail at this first step. The first is the quality of the studies they use. Self-help books love using pop culture science – pop psychology being the worst offender. The moment that authors start sharing debunked research, like the Stanford Prison experiment, I no longer trust them. If they can’t take the extra minute to Google whether it’s true that showing willpower as a child sets you out for later career success or that the average person only uses 10% of their brain, then I find it hard to trust the rest. Just in case you’re wondering, neither of these are true.

The second, are the real-world examples used to illustrate the effectiveness of the advice. Some famous individuals have become a staple in self-help literature: Steve Jobs, Theodore Roosevelt, Bill Gates, Abraham Lincoln, and Albert Einstein. These paragons of excellence have entered the pantheon of “most-successful-people-who’ve-ever-succeeded”. It weakens the argument when every example I’m reading are the usual suspects. On the other hand, if your only examples are average Joes with generic names who would be difficult to track down if needed, doubts start to creep in, wondering if these people exist. Being selective, specific, and critical with examples goes a long way in building trust.

Who does this well? The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – And How To Make The Most Of Them Now by Meg Jay Ph.D. + Why We Sleep: Unlocking The Power Of Sleep And Dreams by Matthew Walker Ph.D.

You don’t need a Ph.D. to write a book, but it shows when you do. Both of these books nail it when it comes to backing up their advice with facts.

If you’re still in your twenties, I recommend The Defining Decade. An easy read that covers why you should start laying the foundation for the life you’d want to live already in your 20s, even if you’re also figuring things out. Meg Jay uses real-life examples from therapy sessions they’ve conducted, with some pretty convincing evidence as to why waiting until your 30s to set a good foundation isn’t ideal.

Reading Why We Sleep gave me many sleepless nights where I reevaluated how little I’d prioritized sleep in my life. At the time of reading it, I was working a hectic job that made having a consistent sleep schedule impossible. This book forced me to come face-to-face with the reality that this was unsustainable. The evidence that Matthew Walker provides is hard-hitting and makes it a must-read for anyone still not convinced that getting enough sleep at night matters.

To the point

The majority of self-help books I’ve read are quite short to start with (under 250 pages), and often half the book is unnecessary. The culprit behind this disaster? I’m blaming an abundance of long-winded examples and anecdotes, paired with a heavy hand of repetition.

Remember that thing about good examples mattering? This is why. One well-chosen example can outweigh 5 mediocre ones. This also goes for personal anecdotes that sidetrack more than illustrating the point.

I get it. Repeating something helps it stick. Repeating something helps it stick. R̸̡̝̫̫͈̆ẽ̸͎͎̹̖̬̽͛̈́̚p̵̬͔̓̚e̵̡̪͇͔̾ͅa̶̱̽̀͝t̴̯̻͈̝̂͛͘i̵̛̟̬̮͒͛̈́͂n̷͕̍͆̏g̶͕͖̫̮͔̎ ̸̻̘̯͝ş̶͝ơ̷̗̬͊̉̇̈́m̸͕̤͆̐͘e̴̛̟͔̓͌̊̿t̶̡̪̂͜͝ͅĥ̸̨͎̝̮͓̀̎̈́i̵̩͝ṅ̴̨͍̞̣͖̍̽̋̔g̵̥̜̳̣̅͜͝ ̵̘̔́̄͑ḫ̸̟̔è̶̖ḷ̶̝̗̲͌͐p̵̡̣̭͚̗̎̚͠s̴̪͜͝ ̸̠̇̒̀͑i̷̗̮͙͌̈́͠t̶̠͙̣̮̓̓̐ ̴̘͔̳̩̔͠s̴̙͍͉̦̘̒̏̅̚t̵̡̙̖͍͑͝ͅi̶̼͈̭̺̫̒̆͝ć̴̨̥̯̄̏̓ḱ̵͙̃. But there’s a finite amount of times this can be done until it becomes condescending, even when it’s done with a wink and a nudge. When heavy-handed, the tendency to repeat statements can come across as the author thinking you’re too thick to remember the point if it’s not repeated two thousand times.

I’m not reading your book for style but content, so please, just say what you’ve got to say without underestimating the reader and get out.

Who does this well? Deep Work by Cal Newport

As someone who finds it difficult to pay attention to…anything, I came into this book skeptical. A book about how deeply focusing on one task is better than pinging back and forth? Well, that’s not only impossible, but it can’t make that much of a difference.

Still, it’d been recommended so often, why not give it a go? Well, I’m happy I did, because Cal Newport puts together a convincing book about the benefits of deep work and how to integrate the practice in your life.

While never overstaying its welcome.

Specific and actionable, yet flexible

Some people read self-help non-fiction to be inspired.

I am not one of these people.

I’m not interested in vague sentences about believing in yourself. I read self-help non-fiction to learn how to do things better. I don’t want the author to just share their philosophy with me, but for them to also share how to best put it into effect. Only telling people what to do, without providing them the ways how to do it, isn’t just useless. It can come across as gatekeeping at best, and like you don’t actually understand your ideas as much as you think you do, at worst. Once again, being specific helps in creating credibility. Even if the only point of reference is how the author did it, as long as that’s recognized, it goes a long way in building trust.

Very few of the self-help non-fiction books I’ve come across allow for adaptability in their advice. If the author also recognizes that human beings can differ in the way they live their lives, their resources, and their ways of thinking, I’m sold. Stepping away from the one-size-fits-all mentality shows an effort to think about the solution being provided from more than one angle.

If you can’t tell me what to do with your advice and are incapable of giving options or seeing more than one way to implement it, I’m left doubting its use. General tips like “be more organized” or “learn to prioritize” don’t do anything for me, unless you can give the specifics.

Who does this well? A classic: How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

At this point, How To Win Friends and Influence People is infamous. If you haven’t read it, you’ve most likely already heard about it. I wasn’t keen on reading it, at first. I thought this book was going to be an amalgamation of nebulous motivational confidence boosters. Or, it was going to be the handbook to manipulate other people to bend to your will. Neither of these sounded interesting to me.

But then my partner pushed me to read it because he found it useful. And since this was in the beginning stages of the relationship where you’re still trying hard to impress each other, so you follow through on their recommendations, I read it. And he was right. It is useful.

I am a human who gets sweaty at even the thought of interacting with other humans. Dale Carnegie’s tips have helped me be a little bit less sweaty. Which I’m qualifying as a win.

Doesn’t only exist to sell the author

I understand that authors of self-help books have to sell themselves a little. We don’t want to take advice from someone who isn’t successful or happy or an expert in whatever they’re vouching. We want to learn from the best. Unless they’re already a worldwide famous figure, they will need to bring in their credentials to convince us they are worth taking advice from.

But more often than not, from the first few pages, you can tell that a book was written to sell the author and his services more than it was to help you. If I read one more marketing book where the author says they were doing something unrelated to marketing but “I’m just so weird and quirky that this completely non-marketing thing reminded me of something marketing-related” in an effort to convince you of their expertise, I will throw myself – or them – into an active printing press.

This flaw becomes particularly egregious when the author’s wrapped up in an inspirational spiel with little substance, while also aggrandizing their own accomplishments. If the conclusion to your story is “it worked so well for me because I’m so smart and I’ll tell you how you could be too, but at a price“, then I’ll stick to not making deals with the devil and moving on to another book that will give me the information I want in one go.

You can have your actions speak louder than words, even when relying only on words. I promise.

Who does this well? On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

This one almost feels like cheating. Considering Stephen King’s reputation and what he specializes in, he more than proves himself as a master of his craft without having to explicitly shove it in your face.

On Writing gives useful writing tips in the context of Stephen King’s own experiences as an author. He takes you on his journey from amateur writer to bestselling author, sharing best practices along the way, without ever feeling like he’s bragging or boasting or trying to sell you his latest book.

It’s not about avoiding talking about yourself, it’s about not putting yourself on a pedestal in an attempt to gain the respect of your reader. Have some trust in your reader and let them decide first, before grabbing them by the shoulders and yelling out your accolades in their face.

I wish I’d told the contrarian in me to shut up and just give the genre a try earlier than I did. Instead, I’ve spent years flip-flopping between either believing I was too capable to do things on my own or believing that I was so different and broken I was beyond help. Getting outside my comfort zone and reading more helpful non-fiction hasn’t changed my life, but I’ve gained some useful tips, tricks, and tidbits along the way that have come in handy.

Simply put: self-help non-fiction can be a great tool to further your understanding of yourself and increase your knowledge about the things that matter to you.

Even though sometimes it’s still more fun to figure things out yourself, not caring if you end up falling on your face.

How To Read 100 Books In A Year (From Someone Not Organized Or Good At Finishing Things)

If there’s something I hate, it’s book snobs.

You know the ones.

The ones who give you 75 quotes on why every successful person on the planet reads 5 books every day so you should be doing it too. The ones who put reading books on a pedestal of “the ultimate, bestest way to consume information and improve yourself/your life”.

I love books and reading is an important part in my life, but I feel like people forget that reading should be accessible and easy and fun.

While sure, reading can make you more productive or intelligent or more empathetic or a more interesting person, it doesn’t have to be the end goal. I read because it’s fun. And you should too.

Because I wanted to get back into enjoying reading as much as I did when I was a kid, I’ve been setting reading challenges for myself. After two successful reading challenges in the last couple years, I’m finally on track to conquering 100 books for this year.

There’s a lot of advice out there online, but most of it seems to be for the more organized, hustle-culture, productivity-booster type of individual. I do not count myself among those. I’m more of a loosey-goosey, absent-minded, eccentric-art-teacher, later-in-life-diagnosed-ADHD kind of type.

And here’s what worked for me.

Start small.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ve heard it all before: don’t run until you can walk, don’t bite off more than you can chew, slow and steady wins the race, ad nauseam. It’s cliche, but in this case, it’s cliche for a reason. Of course it’s exciting to set your first reading target to be 100 in a year. It’s an impressive number, but it can be overwhelming if you’re not already in the habit of reading regularly.

If you’re starting off setting a reading challenge, have it be relative to your starting position. For me, I started with 25, then 52, and this year 100, because that’s what felt feasible.

Build up to it. As you see your want-to-read list grow, you’ll also be motivated to take on more next time.

Prioritize reading

There’s no getting around it, you have to make reading a priority. Expect to significantly cut down on watching shows, movies, or spending time on social media.

It’s necessary to be mindful of what you’re reading when building in the habit to go for a book instead of… anything else. If you use other forms of media to unwind, don’t try to immediately replace them with books on gender or quantum theory. Try to go for something that you could see as being equally as entertaining.

Basically: you’ll have to get off that darn phone, but feel free to replace mindless scrolling with mindless fluff books if that’s your jam. Just make it a switch you look forward to.

Read what you like (and what you think you might like)

Start off by reading what you like.  

If you’re not sure what you like because it’s been some time since you picked up a book or are deciding to start for the first time, this is where you brainstorm.

If you’re already a reader, go back to your old favorites and start there. If you’re not, there will be genres and topics you find interesting in other forms of media that you can carry over into the books you choose.

I love comedy, but never read funny books when I was younger. One of the first things I did when starting my first reading challenge was look up “funniest books” and tick off a bunch on that list. Even if your niche is “bleak Scandinavian detective shows”, there will usually be a literary equivalent.

Feel free to start exploring topics you’ve always wanted to know more about. I do enjoy non-fiction (despite what it may seem like from my tips), but only in very specific topics like illustration, gender theory, autobiographies, or marketing and communications – because I can apply the last one to my regular job.

If you suspect there might be a topic you could enjoy, add that to the list.

Do your research

What do I mean by the list?

The list will be the place where you put everything you want to read. This can include anything from:

  • Book recommendations from friends
  • Book recommendations from influential people you respect
  • Books you’ve been wanting to read for a while
  • Genres you want to explore
  • Specific authors you enjoy and want to know more on
  • People you find inspiring/interesting who you’d like to read about
  • Topics related to professional development (your job, industry, productivity tips)
  • Topics related to personal development (hobbies, self-actualization, philosophy)
  • Anything and everything you could think about that you’d like to spend time on.

The list will be essential in meeting your reading goals.

Now that you’ve given some thought into what you’d like to read, jot them down. Organize it however works best for you – through Excel or through an automated platform.

Sometimes one of the biggest problems with reading is wondering what you’re in the mood to read. Take the guess work and mental strain out of figuring that out and just use your list as your go-to.

Automate keeping track of what you’re reading

If you’re not on Goodreads already, get on it. And for those who don’t want to support Amazon (Goodreads is owned by Amazon, in case you didn’t already know), StoryGraph provides a great alternative that gives you even more data on your books, like mood, average length, and difficulty.

Either of these platforms will give you a great place to input what you’re reading, let you set a reading goal, tell you if you’re on track with it, and a place to dump your want-to-read list. Plus, you can categorize and rate each book, which will lead to more book recommendations.

If you’re looking to switch over to StoryGraph, you can even export your Goodreads data into StoryGraph so you don’t have to manually input everything.

Physical books, tablets, and e-readers, oh my!

You don’t have to stick to physical books during the entire challenge. If you want to save money and space, combine them with a tablet and/or e-reader.

Having several devices for reading is beneficial because each has their own benefit:

  • Physical books can be great to read at home, especially if you’re reading before bed.
  • Physical books are easier to read if you’re prone to getting distracted.
  • E-books are cheaper and take up less space than physical books.
  • E-book libraries are much more accessible than physical libraries since you don’t have to worry about physically returning anything.
  • If you’re traveling, an e-reader or tablet is more practical than carrying around books. Plus, if you get bored with your current read, you’ll have many more available.

Not limiting yourself to one medium means that you can read whenever works for you. Yes, this means you can still have screen time and read at night and sacrifice your sleep. We’re focusing on how to read more. If you’re already going to stay up late, you might as well replace your phone or TV time with a book.

VARIATION. IS. KEY.

Don’t stick to just one genre or author. Combine short books with long ones. Switch up difficulty levels: combine dense novels with easy breezy reads. Go for fiction and then non-fiction.

Read several books at the same time so you can hop between them in case you get stuck on one and don’t be scared to keep on turning to the list and mixing things up.

If you’re not easily bored, you can skip this one. But, if you’re like me, keeping things varied will make sure you don’t feel stagnant. Following up a marketing book with a graphic novel may seem odd to some, but it can help keep the challenge exciting.  

Variation keeps things fresh.

Keep a mini-library

Make sure you’ve got a pile of books ready to be picked up. This goes for both physical and digital copies.

It’s almost inevitable that you’ll reach point where you don’t know what to read and you want to make it as easy for yourself as possible. If you have pre-selected options to choose from based on the list you made, you’ll be more likely to keep going.

If you’re feeling stuck, going out to buy a new book could be an extra mental hurdle that leads to procrastination. If it’s already there, you’ll be less likely to resist the idea of starting a new book because it’s glaring back at you to read it.

So keep your e-reader stocked with options and stop vilifying the unread stack of books piling on dust in your house by using and replenishing it.

It’s more than fine if you fall behind

I’ve already professed how great I think Goodreads is, but I must admit that sometimes it’s a love-hate relationship. Goodreads will let you know if you’re on track for your reading challenge. And it feels great when you’re ahead.

But when it shows you that you’re four books behind (like I currently am at the moment of writing) it can be a teensy bit anxiety-inducing. I want to read and achieve the goal of 100 books, but I know if I panic, I’ll end up procrastinating.

Then I remind myself that I set this goal for myself and no one else and that the whole point is to have fun with it. And I also know this has happened before and I can catch up – I just have to prioritize reading a bit more for the next couple of weeks.

Remember: this is for you and it’s really all about reading more, not about hitting that magical number 100. Don’t stress if you’re behind. Enjoy the journey and read as much as you can.

Part of what led me to challenging myself to read more were some key encounters with old friends. Right when I’d resigned myself to reading less (the motivation wasn’t there anymore) quite a few people in my past started bringing up the fact that they became interested in reading because of how voraciously I read.

The reasons why? Up until then 1) they didn’t realize that reading being fun was an option and 2) they thought to be an avid reader you needed to be on some higher level of self-improvement, or some intellectual path.

That’s really what it took to get the fire going again. A reminder from some old friends of something I’d almost forgotten: reading should be fun and accessible.

If you want to know what didn’t work for my disorganized brain, head here.

Like what you see? I post a new blog every Sunday/Monday where I talk about… whatever THOUGHT interests me that week. Expect a bit of books, travel, beauty, and taking pop culture way too seriously.

Rekindling the Love of Reading: What Didn’t Work & What Did

My life has always been consistently inconsistent. Books, although, have always been one of the few constants in it. With a fervor for reading that made those around me say I ate books instead of reading them, I was known as the reader in whatever circle I was in.

And then from one day to the next, I lost interest in reading.

Not coincidentally, those years overlapped with a bout of depression, insecurity, and a general period of darkness.

Because I was scared of losing that part of me completely, I started actively challenging myself to read more. Over the past few years I’ve gone from 25 to 52 to now trying to hit 100 books this year.

Having to force myself to do something I once loved has made me have to start finding ways to start liking it and be relatively consistent with it. In order to prepare myself, I started reading many articles on this topic and noticed that a lot of it was geared towards people who want to read because of this hustle, millionaire-at-30, CEO-life mentality.

This was and is still not my goal.

I read because it’s fun, I’m curious about learning new things, and it makes me feel more fulfilled than other forms of entertainment. There’s no snobbery or higher goal I aspire to.

If your goal is just to read more and instill that habit into your life, especially if you’re not the most organized, type-A human being, then you’re in the right place.

Here are the tips I avoided like the plague and what worked instead.

You don’t have to schedule your reading to make it a habit

While I love scheduling, I am trash at sticking to plans.

Linking to pre-existing habits only works if you have pre-existing habits to link to. Which if you do, congrats! But if you don’t, it’ll feel like linking a stone in the ocean to a grain of sand, hoping it’ll stay in the same place wave after wave.

Instead, create a general guideline and figure out what works best for you as you progress through your books. For me, something like I have to read x amount of books in x amount of time tends to be good enough. I go for x amount a week, because it’s long enough that it doesn’t feel pressuring, but short enough that I remember to do it.

Plus, unless you’re already prone to being super organized, scheduling it can suck the joy out of any reading challenge and make it feel like… a challenge. Fitting it in wherever it works best for you, be it in 5 hour chunks at night, every other night, waking up ridiculously early, or split through the day will make you more likely to want to do it, instead of only making time for it.

It’s OK to stick through reading something you don’t LOVE

You’re not going to love every book you read.

Even if you do all the research and prep work in the world, there will be books that will feel like a chore to get through. Of course, you should choose books you think you’ll enjoy. But there’s no guarantee that every book, especially once you’re over the one-book-a-week threshold, will be to your taste.

This is especially relevant if you’re halfway through the book anyways – by that point you might as well finish it. The good thing about finishing a book that leaves you disappointed is that it’ll be a good indication of what to avoid in the future.

Instead: if you’re going to commit to a book that you’re not sure you’ll like, make sure it’s a short one. Also make sure you have another one simultaneously that you can pick up in case one of them is making your brain hurt.

Screens are not your enemy

A few facts people like to ignore when recommending people only stick to physical books to avoid distractions:

  • Books are expensive.
  • Books take up space.
  • Getting every book you want is not always possible, especially if you want a book that’s not in the native language of the country you’re in.
  • Not everyone wants to resort to Amazon to buy their books (for those yelling “why don’t you just buy them on Amazon?!)

You’re challenging yourself to read more, not collecting for your personal library or trying to get better sleep. Sure, it’s harder to read if you’re constantly distracted by notifications, but there’s a reason Do Not Disturb exists.

Use it.

Reading in bed is fiiiiiiine

Which leads me to the next piece of advice that seems inescapable: never read in bed.

The reasons why? Well, because it might make you sleepy and you won’t be able to focus. Oh wait, it makes you lose sleep. Oh wait, actually it’s because you need a division of reading and sleeping and it’ll confuse your brain.

While I agree you shouldn’t pick up the habit if you already have that clear division of sleep/play/work area and a consistent sleep schedule, let’s be honest for a second. Most of us scroll for hours on our phones, in bed, every night.

If you already do that, then feel free to read in bed.

Replace the phone for a book. Those arguing you won’t retain important information are assuming you’re reading books to be a smarter, more intellectual, more cultured person instead of just reading for the fun of it. If it’s interesting to you, you’ll remember it.

So maybe just don’t read boring books in bed.

Read at your own pace. Just be mindful of what that is

Real advice I’ve read: read faster. Just read faster? That’s the advice?

Most of us won’t take a speed reading course to prep for a reading challenge. And you shouldn’t.

The fact is, you’ll get through books faster the more you read. Don’t sweat it if you feel slow and clumsy at first. Just like anything else, reading is like a muscle – the more you do it, the more you’ll flex it, and the more dynamic you’ll get. Just keep your pace and focus on what you can read that would match whatever your pace already is.

It’s easier to adjust the book content and size you’re reading to match your speed than it is to learn to read faster.

Read what interests you, not what people tell you will interest you (like practical, non-fiction books)

If you just want to build in regularly reading, focus first on what you enjoy.

You definitely don’t have to love everything you read, but you should at least like it. If practical, non-fiction books are your bread and butter, ignore this section. If you’re like me, a fan of stories more than how-to’s, then start with what you love.

My love of reading really came back in full force when I started reading more fantasy and graphic novels. I’d had a few false starts before where I’d been forcing myself to read classics, self-help non-fiction, and educational books.

While now I’ll gladly pick up one or two (or more) of these, when I was just starting, this made me automatically associate reading with it being another task, making me procrastinate.

Just read what you like and only then focus on all things practical and self-improvement. You’ll be much more willing to give it the time and energy needed for the more tedious books, once you’ve satisfied your taste for the stuff you actually want to read.

A book is a book is a book – you don’t need to break it down into pages

Math hurts my brain. This is why I chose to study social sciences and humanities. Turning something that feels like the opposite of math into something vaguely math-y just sucks the joy out of the experience.

When I started setting myself the goal of picking up more books, all I wanted to get out of reading more was finally getting to the ones I’d put off for so long.

Breaking it down into pages read and how much is the equivalent to one book average and yadayadayada may work for the more goal-oriented, one-track minded of the bunch, but for me, this is a hard pass.

A book is a book is a book. Whatever you consider a book and whatever you think you can manage, just stick to that. If you want to make it more structured for yourself, you are more than welcome to bring out your calculators and Excels.

But for me, keeping track of how many I’ve read and need to read is already a lot, so I keep it as simple as I can.

Basically, if you’re trying to make reading not feel like a chore, don’t make it a chore.

I don’t believe in a world where everyone enjoys reading books, or will fall in love with it if they find the perfect book, just because it’s something that I do. I myself don’t like podcasts or audiobooks because I don’t have the concentration for audio-only, yet know a lot of people who find them even easier and more productive than reading.

One way isn’t more valid than the other just because we’ve given this almost untouchable quality to books.

What I do know, is that you can make it easier for yourself to incorporate it into your daily life.

And if you’re one of the people who gets enjoyment out of it but seems to have this stack of unread books in the corner or their room that feels kind of daunting because everyone loves waxing poetic about how much better of a person they are because they read actual books and are educating themselves but this added pressure only makes you want to do it less so you’ve been ending up just scrolling through your phone all evening then, hey, I’m Nicole and you’re not alone in wanting to change that.

I might not be able to help make you a more productive reader, but I can do my best to give tips on how to make it fun again.

If you want to learn more about what actually did help me in getting back into reading and hitting my reading targets, I’ll be covering that in a few weeks time.

Like what you see? I post a new blog every Sunday/Monday where I talk about… whatever THOUGHT interests me that week. Expect a bit of books, travel, beauty, and taking pop culture way too seriously.

A Reading Retrospective: The Metamorphosis of a Bookworm

I’ve always been known as an avid reader. Like for many others, books provided the perfect outlet for someone with an overactive imagination and who is prone to escapism.

It was so bad as a kid, that the only time I’d get into real trouble was because of reading. The astigmatism from reading with a flashlight for hours under the covers and the pile of stolen third-grade books with the scratched “Ms. Oppy” in permanent marker on each one’s corner are reminders of that.

I’ve gone through periods of reading a lot and then not reading so much back to reading a lot again. Some of the books I read were because I really enjoyed them, others because there wasn’t anything else.

Now, trying to go 3 for 3 for a yearly reading challenge (my target is 100 this year) and with the resources to read whatever I feel like, I make lists of what I want to read based on what I enjoyed in the past. Here’s what I’ve gathered from this reading retrospective.

Chapter One: Scholastic & Spitting Fun Facts

Any American who loves books and who’s experienced a Scholastic fair can tell you that it feels like what they imagine Charlie felt when first entering the chocolate factory. You go to school expecting just another day and before you know it, you have your foot through the door and are hit by the smell of plastic and new books. I don’t remember exactly what I read during this time period apart from The Babysitters Club – all I remember is it was definitely Scholastic.

This was also around the time that I had a stint as an amateur book thief. Let me be clear: this wasn’t intentional, I was just a very forgetful child. My teacher, Ms. Oppy (sorry, Ms. Oppy!!) probably only realized when it was too late. A few months into my thieving stint, I moved to Spain with my stolen goods.

I also took a liking to reading childrens encyclopedias. I used to read these and then relay all the information I’d learned from them to whoever would listen. Which was usually my poor brother who had to hear me prattle about Amelia Earheart being eaten by coconut crabs and lamprey eels. This is most likely what instilled my bad habit of spouting random facts I find interesting to unsuspecting listeners.

Chapter Two: The Obligatory Millennial Harry Potter Phase

Like a lot of millenials, I was obsessed with Harry Potter. From 8 to 13, the Harry Potter books were my Bible – despite having read the Bible. For an 8-year-old, the way I found the first Harry Potter book was the closest to divine intervention I’d experienced. I just found a beat up copy in the back of my dad’s closet, under 10-year-old tennis shoes and a pile of winter coats. He states never having bought it in the first place.

I was obsessed. I read Prisoner of Azkaban 13 times. I drew every single character up until book 5. I had a 500-page unofficial guide to the mythology in the books with notes in the margins, highlighted, and dog-eared. I made potions with shampoo’s and my moms expensive perfumes.

Other notable reads: Roald Dahl, french comics like TinTin, and my first book completely in Spanish: “Me Importa Un Comino El Rey Pepino”. This roughly translates to “I don’t give a damn about the pickle king”. I only recently found out the book isn’t even originally Spanish, but German.

Chapter Three: The Traveling Library That Couldn’t & The Cult That Could

Two factors led to strange literary tastes for a pre-teen: we moved to Spain to a very remote town that didn’t have a library, and we didn’t have much money for books for when we actually returned to civilization.

The town I grew up in was a small town with less than five thousand people and a heavily dispersed population. While they now have a library, back then there was only the “library bus” – known as el Bibliobus. The Bibliobus was meant to come every Thursday.

In reality, the Bibliobus came whenever it felt like it.

This lack of access to new books meant that I read whatever we had at hand. Since my mom loves John Grisham, he became a staple. This time period also coincided with my family’s weird temporary foray into the Jehova’s Witness. The Witnesses took notice of my love of reading and plied me with all the books they had from their own publication, The Watchtower. This never seemed to concern my parents much since I spent most of my time complaining that they didn’t make any sense.

This was also the first time I hated a book: The Secret. My mom, a true proponent of The Secret, urged me to read it. Because The Secret felt even more like cult-like propaganda than that of the actual cult, I didn’t care for it.

Chapter Four: Hiding in The Library

Finally, in middle school, I had access to a library again. The librarian and I quickly became friends since I spent most of my free time there. This was about the time my friends became interested in boys and drinking and cigarettes and I still had a couple years to catch up.

I needed an escape from these newfound hormones and awkward teen years. I found it in the Eragon series and Isabel Allende’s take on magical realism – both her adult (Hija De La Fortuna) and YA books (Ciudad De Las Bestias).

Around this time, I read A LOT of manga. We finally had a good enough internet connection that I could read scanlations (scanned fan-made translations) well into the night. Some that stick out: Vampire Knight, Fairy Tail, Ouran High School Host Club, NANA, and One Piece. Somehow, Naruto was the one I never really got into.

Chapter Four: The Lost Years

During high school, with a bout of depression came a disinterest in reading.

We had some good school books that I read: Watchmen and Camus’ The Stranger were highlights. Near the end I started reading more on my own. I’d reverted to ignoring friends that were never really good friends in the first place and hiding away to read during breaks. This was about the time I slowly started feeling like myself again. The books that stand out are The Book Thief, Catch-22, Maus, and Ubik.

Here, I fell in love with The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. I read and re-read this book over and over, with Iron & Wine as its soundtrack – a match I will still recommend for those who are looking for that perfect state of nostalgic ennui.

Chapter Five: Getting Back Into It

After that dry spell, I started challenging myself to read more. For that, I thank George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, because I blasted through that and it reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading in the first place.

Two genres kept on cropping up: beatnik literature and contemporary Japanese literature.

I can blame the beatniks on my ex-boyfriend, who had an obsession with everything 60s and 70s Americana. Because I was still picking off books from other people’s library shelves, it meant a lot of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Out of this genre, my favorites were the autobiographies, in particular Off the Road by Carolyn Cassidy – the “untold story” of the wife left behind on Kerouac and Cassidy’s ramblin’ adventures. Looking back, it’s probably because the manic beatnik writing style stresses me out.

Here was also my first foray into Japanese literature – completely unrelated to my initial anime obsession. For this, I can blame Convenience Store Woman and the Traveling Cat Chronicles. I picked these two up on a whim in a book store in Turin and was hooked from the first page.

Chapter Six: A Little Bit Of Everything

Last year I made myself read 52 books. This year I’m aiming for 100. Because of that, I read… a little bit of everything and anything that piques my interest. I finally bit the bullet on avoiding non-fiction and try to balance fun with some professional and personal development. I’m also no longer snobbish about only reading physical books: they are expensive and take up so much space.

Because there’re too many to go into, here’s the short version, with my favorite book in each category:

  • Funny – anything by David Sedaris will do. Calypso in particular made me cackle.
  • Sci-Fi – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  • Classics – The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.
  • Graphic Novels – The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  • Autobiographical – The Autobiography of Gucci Mane by Gucci Mane
  • Fashion books – Fashion is Spinach by Elizabeth Hawes
  • Marketing/Communications books – They Ask, You Answer by Marcus Sheridan
  • Writing books – On Writing by Stephen King
  • Illustration and art books – Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon

The only books I refuse to read are self-help books. I’ve accepted that I’m too stubborn and don’t like being told what to do.

Are you what you read or do you choose what to read because of who you are? Regardless of the answer, the conclusion is the same: the books you read show something of yourself and the circumstances you’re in. It’s why I love getting book recommendations from friends over researching online.

Every time someone recommends me a book, I feel like they’re letting me in on a little secret about themselves. Even if I don’t like the book.

Especially if I don’t like the book.

Like whenever anyone recommends me The Alchemist they’re letting me know “psssst, I don’t know good books and carry around a sense of pseudo-altruistic self-importance I try to disguise as depth”*.

And how else could you find out that sort of thing?



*Disclaimer: I am still friends with people who like The Alchemist. I just don’t trust their taste in books. Just like a lot of people don’t trust my taste in films because my favorite movie is The Room. We all have our hang-ups!

I’ve Never Been Good at Sticking with Things: The Lifecycle of an Abandoned Hobby

As you get older, you begin to accept parts of yourself that you used to be delusional about. At the ripe old age of 26-going-on-27, I’ve already come to understand a few things:

  • Bangs in any way, shape, or form do not look good on me,
  • I will never be the “chill girl”, because I have never been chill for a second of my life,
  • And I have never been, and probably never will be, good at sticking with things.

I could blame the last one on an inability to stick to routine, an ego that can’t handle not being perfect at everything immediately, or an attention span that rivals that of a coked-up squirrel. But instead of taking responsibility for my actions, I’ll just blame my parents. It’s their fault for being too supportive of their children, encouraging us to be independent and take ownership of our hobbies. Instead, they should have been over-invested in what we were doing and set up unrealistic expectations that we’d never meet. Like normal parents.

Despite this dilemma of nurture or nature, the result is the same: I have more abandoned hobbies than I can even list. While I can’t remember each reason for picking them up or why I abandoned them, at this point, all I am sure of is that they all go through the same cycle.

Phase 1: The Epiphany

It starts innocuous enough. Your friends are doing cartwheels around the schoolyard and are talking about the new gymnastics class they all signed up to. No, you watched a YouTube video on nail art and realized you can walk around with ladybugs on your nails all the time. Wait no, your sister came back from her tap-dancing class in a leotard and tap shoes and oh look, everyone’s looking at her, and doesn’t that look really fun?

And then the thought creeps in….

“I could totally do that.”

Phase 2: The Honeymoon Phase

You’ve now done it a couple times and it feels a-ma-zing. You’ve convinced yourself that this new thing you’re doing is going to change your life. The stars have aligned, and you’ve finally found your calling.

Although you’ve just started – or not even that yet – you’ve already told every person you’ve met about the new coding app you bought (even though just the thought of anything too detail-oriented and logical makes your eyes glaze over) or shown them your brand-new rollerskates (even though you’re terrified of going faster than walking speed or doing any tricks without at least 7 layers of padding on first).

It’s all uphill from here, bay-bay!

Phase 3: The Struggle

It turns out to be good at things you have to actually be consistent… and slog through the rough parts… and you’ll probably most likely suck in the beginning. And it turns out you won’t be an amazing superstar/professional athlete/X-games winner/yogi instructor/coding genius after a month.

Although this happens every time, you are both shocked at how hard things can be and disappointed at the lackluster results. This time was supposed to be different. You saw how it was all supposed to play out (ending with you being awesomely amazing at everything, naturally), and now see your half-baked dreams slipping through your fingers.

And all you have to show for it is a malformed vase your ten-year-old hands made in a community center basement, surrounded by sexagenarians.

Phase 4: The Bargaining

You know what? Who even has the time and energy to do something every few days for a limited amount of time to get better at it? What do you mean spending an incessant amount of hours in a short time isn’t sustainable?

You’ve tried to see it through and still, things don’t seem to be getting much better. Your fingers still hurt from playing the guitar those three times for like 15 minutes and you’re still unsure if you’ll ever be able to pick and strum at the same time. Ignoring the fact that every 20-something year old guy with a beanie can do it, you’ve convinced yourself that people who can do this must be multi-armed wizards.

And since you’re not an appendagely-gifted wizard and honestly, it’s getting kind of boring, you quietly give up.

Phase 5: The Shame

Here’s the thing with quietly giving up: it doesn’t really work when you’ve announced to the whole world that you’re seriously – but like, seriously this time – taking on a new hobby. That unlike last time, this time you did the research and bought all the right stuff for it. And yes, I know I quit the other thing but this time I made a PLAN.

You want to disappear as soon as someone starts asking about how your YouTube channel’s going and when you’re going to post your next video on how to quit shopping for a year. You want the Earth to swallow you and the over-stuffed Zara bag(s) hanging on your arm. But since it won’t, the best thing to do is just accept the shame, own up to your flakiness, and mumble something about a completely unrelated topic to distract them.

Plus, I just saw this other thing that it turns out I really want to do, and I think I could be really good at it? And if I was doing the first thing I just gave up, I’d have no time to do this new thing! I’m not actually giving up, I’m just prioritizing. Look! I’m making a plan and everything!

Was this entire blog a long-winded way to say that I hope this lasts but that my track record isn’t exactly stellar, so please, set your expectations accordingly? Maybe.

But hey, a few things have stuck along the way. I still make art and love to read and even write every so often. You try so many things out, something’s bound to stick.

Let’s hope this one does too.