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Forging More Mindful Connections to Books

Natalie Layne Baker

Staff Writer

Natalie Layne Baker's writing has appeared at Audible, Hachette, Book Riot, Submittable, Entropy, Memoir Mixtapes, Howl Round, and Bone & Ink Lit Zine. She currently resides in Philadelphia.

In my everyday life, I strive toward the idea of embodying mindfulness. Mindfulness is a “basic human ability to be fully present … and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” It’s a hot topic of interest to people, in both personal and professional environments, and can have myriad positive mental effects for those who make an effort to practice it. So, how can mindfulness affect your reading life? Can the techniques people use to improve their relationships and careers be applied to form more mindful connections to books, too?

Focus on the Act Itself, Not the Benefits

In their introduction to the practices of mindfulness, Mindful writes, “When we meditate it doesn’t hep to fixate on the benefits, but rather to just do the practice.” I think there is a clear parallel to the practice of reading here. All too often it can be too easy to fixate on the benefits of reading — improving your mind, maintaining a constant connection to written language, and (let’s face it) looking smart to others — that it can pollute the actual practice.

I know I have struggled to read much for over a year now, and that I’m not alone. Eventually, throughout the past year-plus of social isolation, reading became such a foreign and contentious task to me that I struggled to make sense of it. I had the conversation with myself again and again that I needed to keep reading because it was good for me, good for my brain, a central part of my core identity. In other words, I was spending a lot of time thinking about benefits of reading rather than the in-the-moment pleasure and peace that comes along with spending time with a good book.

Once I reframed my reading struggles through the practices of mindfulness, I realized: I was getting too hung up on the idea that I should be reading, rather than spending time with my books because I was genuinely motivated to do so. In stripping back the expectations of myself as a reader, and my fixation on staying “up to date” with my books, I have found new appreciation for the tranquility reading can afford me when I don’t overthink it.

Stripping Away the Performativity

There is also a deep sense of performativity in online bookish spaces, which, to be fair, is not exclusive to our little corner of the internet. Social media is a hell of a double-edged sword, one which can seemingly connect us to innumerable people with shared interests and ideas, but which also demands of us a type of hyper-engaged performance that is not natural, and arguably unhealthy.

Any time we post online, we are not being ourselves; we are performing a version of ourselves that we’ve curated from the reality of who we are, a curation based on the palatability of how others will perceive it. In other words, even when the things we post may come from a genuine place, there is an inherently disingenuous veneer to it.

So, while it’s fun to engage with bookish influencers on Instagram or TikTok, it’s critical to have an honest conversation with yourself about your media diet. How many hours a day do you spend consuming content about books, versus the number of hours you spend reading them? A personal audit of your own habits is a valuable way of beginning your journey toward reforming mindful connections with books.

I love reading. I love being a reader. I love connecting with other readers and having effusive conversations about the books we adore. It’s a natural human act to want to connect with other people about our passions, whether it be books or anything else. But it can be difficult sometimes to distinguish the line between loving reading and loving to be perceived as a reader.

Mindfulness is a practice of meditative focus, and who among us has not striven for meditative connections to good books? We can only achieve that by stripping away the ego that comes with “being a reader” and returning our focus to the practice itself.

Through applying the ideals of mindfulness to my reading, I have reconnected to what I consider the most important parts of it: mental stimulation, a meditative and tranquil focus on something outside myself, and a connection to the worlds and ideas of people all around me. I’ll happily continue to talk books with other readers, though going forward, I’ll be doing so with an eye toward remembering why I read in the first place.