Our Reading Lives

Right Book, Right Time

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Kat Howard

Staff Writer

Kat lives in New Hampshire, where she writes, reads, and does various other bookish activities. Follow her on Twitter @KatWithSword.

A couple of weeks ago at ReaderCon, Rose Fox said something while on a panel that really resonated with me. It was a panel on spoilers and content warnings, and one of the other panelists was winding up into a rant about how content warnings made it so that people could choose to only read soft, comfortable things, and that this was clearly bad.

Fox pointed out that a reader taking advantage of content warnings – such as, this book contains descriptions of graphic violence, or sexual assault – is not saying “I am never going to read this book.” What that reader is actually saying is, “I am not going to read this book today.”

Now, I pretty much feel that when people are making the choice to read on their own, that they can choose to read for whatever reason they want. So if you only want to read soft, comfortable things, go right ahead, and don’t feel bad. I remember one three-week period in my life where literally the only thing I could read was romance novels, because I needed to know that I had one safe place where everything would be okay.

But sometimes, I – and other readers, I feel certain – are like the reader Fox was referring to. I do read books that make me angry, that break my heart, that challenge me. And sometimes, I need to wait for the right time to read them, or otherwise, I will put the book away, and not have a reading experience that I might have otherwise wanted.

I’ve been thinking a lot since that panel (and a subsequent discussion with writers Maria Dahvana Headley and Leah Bobet) about what it means to find the right book at the right time. I don’t think there’s a particular formula – sometimes when you’re sad you need Terry Pratchett, because his writing will make you feel better, and sometimes when you’re sad you need Code Name Verity, so that you can just rip your heart out and be done with it. We look for different things, we readers, when we are looking for comfort (or whatever else) in our reading. And finding a book at the right time can mean so many different things.

I think a lot about Sarah McCarry’s All Our Pretty Songs, a book which is one of my favorites, a book I read as an adult because that was when it was written, but had I been able to somehow live my life backwards and read it in high school, would have been one of the books that was tattooed on my soul, that would have been part of what made me. I think of reading Robin McKinley’s Deerskin, a book which I very much needed to read, but which harrowed me to the point that while I will always keep my copy, I will never reread it. Or Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker, which I read after my beloved pug died, because one of its heroes is a small and elderly pug. And I think of a clutch of romance novels, that guaranteed me happy endings. All right books, at those times.