If you’re anything like me, sitting down with a copy of War and Peace isn’t the first impulse you have during a time of especially vicious burnout. When life seems to be coming at us from every direction, our reading tastes tend to turn to the lighthearted, the fanciful, and the familiar. After yet another exhausting day of studying, working, or parenting, it can even feel easier to just forego books altogether and let YouTube put us to sleep.
But picking up a “challenging” book might actually be a challenging form of self-care that can help mitigate the symptoms of burnout. Far from being draining and adding to our already heavy workload, reading challenging books can relieve frazzled feelings and restore our minds while helping us find catharsis in our daily lives.
Returning to focus
For me, burnout often manifests with scattered attention and fragmented energy. I feel pulled in so many directions at once by my to-do list that it’s impossible to actually address the important issues among the ones clamoring for my attention. Regular tasks become hard to organize, and if I manage to get them done, it feels like I have nothing left in the tank for what I really want to do.
Challenging books can, counterintuitively, help ease this frustration. These works demand all of our attention and energy to absorb, helping us reorient our inner lives into a more linear and focused pattern. You just can’t read A Tale of Two Cities or The Silmarillion while simultaneously answering emails on your phone and cooking dinner. To follow the story and really enjoy the rich prose of these and similar works, the reader must let her mind rest on the story and the story alone.
I know what you might be thinking: “Great, the last thing I need is another demand on my attention.” But hear me out. When you pick up a long or challenging book like The Brothers Karamazov, the very act of comprehension in reading requires that you put down the phone, cancel distractions, and pay attention to only one thing. This simple act of directing your attention at one thing is in and of itself helpful for resting your overworked mind while giving you the reward of a great story. With a good hard book, there are no consequences, no deadlines, no tests, in fact, no real demands on you at all. During high-pressure times, I’ve found real solace in this demand-free space.
The pleasure of accomplishment
Another big contributor to burnout is the lack of closure or reward and the repetitive weight of seemingly endless tasks, like keeping up with bills, packing lunches, or commuting. In contrast, books have a clear narrative and physical form, and good ones have a moment (or moments) of definite catharsis. They have a beginning, middle, and end. Their very structure stands in stark contrast to the habits that burn us out: they aren’t repetitive tasks or formless to-dos.
Finishing a chapter, a section, and eventually a whole book can help you achieve a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. For too many of us, the cathartic feeling of total completion is rare in our everyday adult lives. Reading a challenging book and actually finishing it can inject a dose of that satisfaction into an otherwise frustrating day.
Something you get to do, not something you have to do
It’s easy to feel like we’re always working. From checking email first thing in the morning to picking up after family members to using her free time to clean, shop, pay bills, and do battle with the IRS, the modern woman puts in a lot of hours. Although reading “hard” books does require a little effort, it’s really helpful to think about doing so as real leisure—adding another thing to life’s never-ending to-do list is the opposite of the point. Although I am a huge proponent of reading on a schedule, the minute you see reading as a task you “have” to do rather than a beautiful activity you “get” to do, the fun is over. For this reason, it’s really important to choose books that you actually want to read; if a book gives you a sinking feeling when you look at it, put it back! Do you enjoy fantasy? Pick up some Tolkien or an epic poem like Beowulf or the Odyssey. Romance? Try Madame Bovary or Lorna Doone. Politics? Grab Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Non-Fiction? Susan Wise Bauer’s History of the Ancient World or Oswald Chambers’ Witness are both enthralling.
Think of it this way: having access to both the “hard” books and the education necessary to read them is a rare combination, possessed by relatively few women throughout history. To read is not only to rest, but also to delight in a precious gift.
Reading is also one leisure activity in which there need be no guilt. This is a neat feature of books—I’ve felt guilty many a time after a four-hour binge on Netflix, but never yet have I felt like time reading was ever misspent or “lazy.” There’s nothing wrong with watching movies on streaming services, but let’s be honest, rarely does spending our tired hours sitting in front of a screen make us feel better. (Most of the time, I find it just makes me feel “not-worse.”) Not to mention, I have found that it is easier to justify “me-time” to your family members or co-workers if you’re wielding an impressive book (as opposed to an iPad or a pair of headphones).
The inspiration of stories
One of the many rewards of these difficult books is the potential they carry to inspire and support us as we confront difficulty and stress. Besides their anti-burnout properties, books offer delight, inspiration, and a deeper connection to what makes us human. For example, as a mariner, I identify with Ishmael’s famous words on the first page of Moby Dick about hearing the call to the sea when I feel “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.”
If it’s a damp, drizzly November in your soul, go to sea with Ishmael. Adventure through magical lands with King Arthur and his knights. Tell myths with the rabbits of Watership Down. Reckon with your soul alongside Anna Karenina. These and many other stories between the covers of challenging books have the power to lift the veil of stress and busyness that so often clouds our vision and to replace it with beautiful stories. In the words of Declan O’Donnell, the protagonist of Brian Doyle’s The Plover, “For thousands of years we said [we wanted] gold and food and land and power and freedom and knowledge and none of those were true . . . because we are starving for story, our greatest hunger.”