How To

Turning Unexpected Downtime into a Literary Staycation

This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Melody Schreiber

Staff Writer

Melody Schreiber is at work on a nonfiction anthology of premature birth. As a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., she has reported from nearly every continent. Her articles, essays, and reviews have been published by The Washington Post, Wired, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, NPR, The Toast, Catapult, and others. She received her bachelor’s in English and linguistics at Georgetown University and her master’s in writing at the Johns Hopkins University. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @m_scribe.

Earlier this year, I lived at the hospital. My water broke when I was just 27 weeks pregnant, and I checked into the hospital for several weeks of strict bed rest. Far from the abject misery you might imagine hospital bed rest to be, I had a pretty great time! First of all, of course, I was thrilled that modern medicine allowed a little more growing time for my baby-to-be before he made his appearance–every day helped. But secondly, I was able to catch up on my reading–to escape into other worlds and lives even when I couldn’t leave my bed.

So, what makes a good reading list for a long-term hospital stay? I’m glad you asked!

1. Set boundaries

First, I decided what I did not want to read. Because so much of my time was spent worrying about my forthcoming kid, I knew I couldn’t handle stories where children were harmed in any way. I especially avoided stories about pregnancies gone wrong or small children being harmed. Before starting a book, I asked friends who had read it if it contained any potential triggers for my anxiety. Then I knew I could read free of fear! (I also tried to avoid super sexy books, since intimate time was a big no-no for my condition. Sorry, romances–we’ll meet again soon.)

2. Find something immersive, but not overwhelming
I looked for books that would draw me into their worlds, but wouldn’t command all of my attention. I wanted to be able to stop and nap whenever I needed to, and I didn’t want to dream about the story or stay up late finishing it. I really enjoyed Kelley Armstrong’s City of the Lost; it was fast-paced and thrilling, but I could dip out of it as easily as I dipped into it, which is exactly what I needed.

3. Look beyond your limitations
In the vein of deciding what I didn’t want before figuring out what I did want, I also decided to avoid books set in hospitals or focused on urgent health matters, like infectious diseases. I have obsessive compulsive disorder, and being in a hospital is stressful enough for a germaphobe. The books I picked up needed to be escapist in some way–from the magic of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus to the wonder of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

4. Appreciate your surroundings
That being said, a story about medical isolation like Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything is perfect for a hospital stay. It helps you appreciate the little pleasures of life, no matter what limitations you face–and it reminds you that there are some risks worth taking.

5. Count your blessings

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It served as a constant reminder of those who have overcome more sorrow and suffering than I could even imagine, both in the past and present. My bed rest quickly began looking more like a relaxing staycation in comparison.

6. Forget about “shoulds”
Bed rest may not be the worst fate in the world, but it ain’t always fun. Go for your guilty pleasures, whether it’s The Daily Show“: An Oral History (edited by Chris Smith) or a fast-paced thriller (see City of the Lost above!). The whole point of bed rest is taking it easy and making sure your body stays happy. Keep your mind happy, too! It makes the time pass so much faster when you forget about any reading obligations and just have fun.

7. Don’t forget your real-life friends
The characters you follow may make you feel less lonely, but you can also use books to connect with actual people. I got a ton of book recommendations; in fact, most of the books on this list were lent to me by friends who heard I was in the hospital and immediately asked if I needed something to read. (They know me so well!) Sharing books and recommendations will also give you something to talk about when you’re too jealous to hear about life happening outside your four walls or too stressed to explain the latest update in your medical file. And reading your friends’ faves also creates new shared interests and connects you to them in new ways.

8. Read out loud
I love taking turns reading books out loud with my husband. You can affect voices and act out the scenes, or you can just channel your favorite audiobook narrator and read with aplomb. I find it extremely comforting to have someone read to me, especially when I’m not feeling well. It can also help when you’re too tired to read, but can’t yet sleep.

7. And laugh out loud
Speaking of fun–look for anything that will make you laugh. (I hear it’s the best medicine.) I’m So Pregnant by Line Severinson was a timely book, in my case, and it made me view my circumstances with a little more humor.

Of course, staying in the hospital for a long stretch isn’t something I recommend if you can avoid it. All jokes aside, it can be an extremely stressful and tiring time, and above all you need to take it easy on yourself. But hopefully you’re able to find the silver lining and relax with a book or two!

What books do you turn to when you’re facing downtime?