When I was little, reading was a way into a more exciting world. I was the kid whose mom had to make her go outside to play; on car trips, whether lengthy road trips or a quick jaunt to the grocery store, my nose was always buried in a book (which meant that when I started driving, I had no idea where I was going and spent my life getting un-lost.)
Over the years, reading stopped being a pastime and became my work. It’s what I do for a living, it’s what I teach, it’s what I write about: It’s what I “do.” You sometimes hear that reading is an “escape,” and this claim has at times made me worry about my choice of profession: Am I running away from reality into unreality?
The more I think about it, the more clearly I know the answer is no.
For one thing, reading is exhausting. Even to someone like me who loves reading enough to do it for a living, reading is exhausting. I sometimes find myself avoiding reading for other activities—a good Netflix binge, a long run, a day of yard work, or scrubbing tile grout with a toothbrush are all at different times more attractive to me than reading.
One of my favorite authors, Flannery O’Connor, has helped to understand why reading can take such effort. As both a writer and a reader herself, O’Connor offers a compellingly holistic account of what makes literature a genre of art. Flannery defines an art as “something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode.” Literature, then, is “a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system,” because of course the truth about human life is that “we are made of dust.” Readers want “to be lifted up” by what they read; but “the price of restoration” is the active engagement with the Real that they are given in the literature.
Reading, then, is not an escape from reality but an immersion in reality. Reading intensifies experience, giving words to our unspoken thoughts, faces to our unacknowledged hopes and fears, shape to our experiences. It is also expansive, forcing us outside our comfort zones and breaching the defensive walls we’ve erected between our view of things and the way things really are. Paradoxically, the fictional lives of others is like a a lens that brings our own life into clearer focus.
And for this reason, literature makes me live better. By this I do not mean that it teaches me how to live: That’s too simple. There are no easy answers to the questions that make up our lives, and any book that pretends that there are such easy answers is, to that extent, neither great nor true.
What I mean is that literature helps me live well, with more awareness, more deliberation, more commitment. Literature makes me confront aspects of my life and myself that it would be much more comfortable to ignore.
And this is why it’s important to make literature a part of leisure time even though it can be uncomfortable and exhausting. Rebecca Corgan reminded me in her recent article for Verily that leisure time is not about what feels good but what actually refreshes you. Often the least mindful of activities, which are most attractive when I’m tired and worn down, are in fact the least refreshing. She writes: “Real self-care, I’ve found, has less to do with what I feel like doing in the moment than how well an activity or practice re-energizes me for the rest of my life.” I find reading to be one such activity: It takes energy from me, but it also re-energizes me to live better and to give more attention to my daily life.
Practically speaking, however, most of us don’t have a lot of leisure time, so it’s important to get the biggest bang for our buck. So many of the great works of literature are absolute door stops, and trying to plod through these a chapter at a time is a sure-fire way to run out of momentum almost before you’ve begun. So I find myself turning to short stories and novellas for quick doses of literary refreshment.Here are some of my recent favorites:
01. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.
This collection of short stories from 1919 deals with many different characters in the eponymous town. Unlike most short-story collections, these stories form a kind of unified whole, which makes it interesting and rewarding to read both in pieces and to reflect on as a whole. Fellow Flannery fans will be interested to know Anderson was influential on the style and themes of O’Connor’s stories, although her work is better-known these days than Anderson’s. (If this article is the first encounter you’ve had with Flannery, add the collection of her short stories—The Complete Stories—to your list!)
02. The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy.
If you are interested in Russian writers but are intimidated by their lengthy tomes, this short novella is an excellent alternative. It is also one of the most realistic of the Russian novels: It is not set in a great war, it’s not about a murderer, it’s not about a maniac. Instead, this story dives into the psyche of an average man forced to confront his mortality when caught in a relatably un-heroic set of circumstances.
3. Gunnar’s Daughter by Sigrid Undset.
Undset is best known for her trilogy Kristen Lavransdatter. This short novel, however, written early in her career, grapples with similar themes, examining both the lovely and the horrifying aspects of human existence. Set in eleventh-century Norway, the novel focuses on the social, personal, and spiritual challenges that Vigdis Gunnarsdatter must face. It’s also a powerful meditation on the beauty and sacrifice of motherhood particularly and on the paradox of strong femininity more generally.
4. “Will Mrs. Major Go to Hell?” by Aloise Buckley Heath.
And now for something entirely different! This hilarious book of memoirs by the oldest sister of William Buckley, founder of National Review, depicts life as one of ten children to an oil baron growing up in the Northeast. Think nannies, multilingualism, and children’s hijinks interspersed with fascinating commentary on contemporary political and social issues. It’s like Cheaper by the Dozen, but even more real.
5. The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse.
Or really any of Wodehouse’s books—really, any of them. Wodehouse is a British author and humorist. Master of irony, both verbal and dramatic, his absurd stories of the upper class Brits of the early twentieth century are uproariously funny in their biting awareness of human nature in all its glorious absurdity. One page is about as entertaining as an entire chapter; so while this collection doesn’t really belong in the genre of novellas, I’ve included it in this list because reading it in twenty-minute chunks is as refreshing as reading any short story I’ve encountered.
Though time may be—and generally is—short, that’s no reason to avoid the rewarding effort of reading classic literature. Short stories and novellas like the above are a way to get the biggest bang for your buck. Working some of these “quick dips” into your habits of self-care will help you make leisure time truly refreshing!