I went through a phase, a few years back, when all I was reading was what we call Chick-Lit. I started becoming increasingly unhappy, and therefore kept reading more of this genre; it was a vicious cycle. Before I go on, let me explain what I mean by Chick-Lit. I am referring to the fluffiest of these books. The ones that tend to be formulaic and are usually based around the protagonist finding her perfect job, perfect mate, perfect weight, and perfect life by the last page.
Someone finally asked me what I had been reading lately and I told her. Well, there’s your problem, she responded. What? How could that possibly be my problem? I was sad, therefore I was reading about people who were not sad. I was reading about situations that end happily – I was CHEERING MYSELF UP, DAMN IT. No, she explained, you are making yourself feel bad. Try reading something else, something a little heavier, a little more realistic. Challenge yourself.
So I picked up Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.
The next time I spoke to this person she asked me how I was doing, and if I had changed anything about what I was reading. I told her that I wasn’t exactly feeling happy, but I had certainly been distracted by reading Mantel’s tome, which required me to do a good amount of Internet research along the way.
Read another thinker, she said.
So I did.
And eventually, after a few (some fiction, some non-fiction), I got the point; if not in my head then in my heart. I started realizing that though some of these books were depressing, they were real. That life doesn’t always turn out the way we want it to, and not everyone’s path looks the same. These are things that I fundamentally knew, but had forgotten while inundating myself with stories of people who lived cookie cutter lives with fairy tale-istic endings. And I started noticing that the people I talked to, who were also reading these books, were much more likely to disclose things in their lives that wouldn’t fit into any book equivalent of a romantic comedy – if only because we were lighting our conversation off of a spark from whatever book we were talking about.
In a later conversation with the friend who had encouraged me to change my reading habits, what I had noticed in my heart seeped into my head; reading books that show what life is really like doesn’t make anything in your life worse than it was before; instead, it shows you how very not alone we are, and how very unrealistic our expectations can be when we surround ourselves in a culture that only represents an ongoing, unrealistic happiness – whether that be in the form of movies, books, art, or music.
I looked at my bookshelves recently. Some of the specific genre titles are still there, they are wonderful for the times when I need some mindless entertainment (which, by the way, still happens more than occasionally). But mostly I see books about real things – some titles I only let my eyes flicker over because I know that what’s in their pages is heartbreaking and scary, but I also know that they’re there when I need them; sitting and waiting to have a conversation with me about how life isn’t always fair and is often not beautiful, but is always rich and very, very real.