Your Happiness Project: Read something for fun.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you should have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

This week — read something for fun!

I’ve noticed something when I ask people what they’re reading: they often name some highly estimable, dense, serious book, and then confess that they’ve been reading it for months.

I pressed one friend to explain his reading habits. “I just don’t have the time,” he said.

“Well, your books sound a bit dry,” I said. “Why don’t you read something more enjoyable?”

“When I read, I want to learn something,” he said virtuously. “I don’t want to waste my time with something that’s not worthwhile.”

“But you watch a lot of trashy TV,” I pointed out. I happened to know that he was a fan of shows like VH1’s “I Love the Eighties,” some reality TV, and lots of sports. “You don’t force yourself to watch nothing but documentaries when you’re watching TV, why shouldn’t you read something more fun?”

He didn’t really answer me. But I think this exchange highlights a problem with the way a lot of people approach reading.

In general, reading is supposed to be fun! Go out and get hold of a book you want to read.

If you find yourself saying things like, “I really ought to read this,” or “I’ll be glad that I read this,” or “This is an important book,” you probably don’t really want to read that book.

Sometimes, of course, we all need to read books that we aren’t particularly interested in—say, for work. I’m lucky in that way, because the way I choose my work subject is by asking myself, “What’s a subject about which I’d like to read 500 books?” And then I read 500 books and write my own book on that subject. Now, not everyone call pull that off, true.

But along with the books I read for work, following my resolution to “Read better” and “Read at whim,” I let myself read books just because I feel like it. I read a lot of children’s literature. I re-read a lot of books—this weekend, I re-read George Orwell’s A Collection of Essays. I read a lot of odd books. I read a lot, generally. But if I try to make myself read something that I don’t really feel like reading, my reading drops off considerably. I just don’t find the time for it. But when I’m reading something good, I find myself reading for hours each day.

Samuel Johnson observed, “A man should read whatever his immediate inclination prompts him to; though, to be sure, if a man has a science to learn, he must regularly and resolutely advance.” He added, “What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.”

Science backs this up. When researchers tried to figure out what helped third- and fourth-graders remember what they read, they found that the students’ interest in the passage was far more important than the “readability” of the passage—thirty times more important.

When you have the right book, nothing is more fun than reading. So go to a bookstore or a library or online and get a book that you want to read. The test? You should feel like going straight home and sitting down to read it, immediately.

Don’t judge yourself. Let yourself read what you want. Remember, it’s supposed to be FUN. And it is fun, nothing is more fun, if you’re reading something you enjoy.

The wonderful folks at the Savvy Source – a great site for parents of preschoolers — were nice enough to do an interview with me. Check out the site — lots there.

On Gimundo, I read a fascinating article about a town in Germany that eliminated traffic lights, stop signs, and pedestrian crosswalks — and eliminated accidents. I can imagine this working in a small town — but what are the larger lessons? Very provocative.

I’ve started sending out short monthly newsletters that will highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. If you’d like to sign up, click on the link in the upper-right-hand corner of my blog. Or just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “newsletter” in the subject line. I’ll add your name to the list.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Sue

    I have recently started re-reading the Nancy Drew series of books. I loved these books as a kid and thought I could both enjoy them and learn a little from Nancy along the way!

  • Definitely agree with this one. I was patiently- patiently- patiently waiting for Fearless Fourteen at the Library. Then I saw it for $10.00 new. Snatched it up and am loving it. I don’t generally buy fiction, that’s what the library is for, but I re-read Stephanie Plum books when I’m overwhelmed so this is a good fix.

  • When I’m having a lousy day there is NOTHING like a bubble bath, chocolate, and a trashy Jackie Collins novel to make me feel happy again.

  • I get into this rut now and then. I start a book that seems interesting and it turns out to be the exact opposite. However, I have a hard time stopping, because I always feel like I need to finish what I start. So, I have been conciously stopping on books that aren’t worth reading.

  • I love reading children’s books! I just recently reread “Harriet the Spy” and it was very enjoyable.

  • Jenna

    I love reading children’s books too. I recently read “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory” for a class & laughed & giggled as I read sections of it to my husband.

  • Check out Voltaire’s Candide … its freaking hilarious! its a short(about 100 or so pages) timeless(written in 18th century france) piece about optimism and happiness via the world travels of our lead character Candide and the teachings of his professor Dr Pangloss… I have actually re-read this many times because it is such a good book.. conversly Voltaire has another book written about pessimism called Zadig which is equally as funny but read Candide first .. 😉 cheers!

  • I recently picked up the His Dark Materials series, and I felt I was transported back to when I was a kid and I would read for hours and hours and hours… I’m a compulsive reader anyway, but I’m learning to recognize the “ought” feeling, as in “well, I ought to finish reading this…” If I don’t HAVE to read it, I skip it at that point.
    Can you cite the study on 3rd and 4th graders, please? I have a friend who teaches 4th grade in inner-city Baltimore, and I’d love to send her the info. Thanks, Gretchen!

  • Jason

    Imagination is the muscle of the soul.
    Paraphrase of V Nabokov, or a line out of one of his books, not sure. Took a Nabokov course at university and was blown away by how much he advocated the use of the imagination. It’s a beautiful thing and we’re lucky to have it. Imagination is part of the joy of being alive, of being human. Who cares if it has utility?

  • Life is too short to read boring books or those you think you “should” read! I used to think I HAD to finish a book once I started it and would slog through them, hating every page, eager to finish so I could read something better. Now, if It doesn’t grab me and whisk me away in the first chapter it goes in the donate/return pile! I don’t want anything too deep these days ~ just give me pure escapist entertainment and one of my favorite bookmarks ~ that is if I HAVE to put it down!

  • MJ

    This is why I read Vanity Fair and Vogue on the recumbent bike – I’ve enjoyed a lot of “worthy” and “high-minded” books in my time but sometimes skimming Dominick Dunne’s columns and reading about perfume and artists is just what you need.
    And on a higher-minded note, Vogue during my workout one day introduced me to Walton Ford’s art – something that I (bird lover, nature lover, lover of the weird and gothic and creepy) ADORE but might not have found quickly in another way.
    I also vote for Donna Leon’s wonderful Venetian murder mysteries (do some police work, stop for a sandwich and a glass of wine, call on the Countess, go home for a lunch of fresh local vegetables, pasta and a home-made dessert, take the boat back to the office…). Food-porn, travel-porn and a mystery all in one handy paperback!
    Other good rules – don’t be ashamed to skim when you get bored, or to put a book down and not finish it if you just can’t get into it. Life is too short.

  • I’m getting together a Summer Book Club on my blog. We’re going to vote on some fun books to read this summer. Jackie Collins-type stuff isn’t my thing, but there’s a new David Sedaris book out…
    Anyway, if any of you is interested, we’d love to have you.

  • Amy

    How true! There’s a reason movie studios bring out summer (they hope) blockbusters and save weightier fare for the cooler months.
    It’s a balancing act.

  • I’m reading Leaven of Malice by Robertson Davies, a fun book by a wonderful writer. I’m always reading self-improvement books and recently wondered on my blog how healthy or helpful that actually is!!

  • Jen

    A slightly different perspective: I love to read, and read for fun pretty much constantly, usually fiction. I became a member of a book club, and have to read the assigned book each month. It’s been really good for me, because I’m reading different genres than I would have left to my own devices.
    And, not surprisingly, I’ve enjoyed the books!

  • Agreed. The idea of only reading to gain knowledge, because a book is a classic, or we want to cross it off the list… makes reading feel like work. Reading for pleasure adds happiness to our lives and is truly time well spent.

  • That was excellent. I have been a reader for as long as I can remember. My list of books that I want to read keeps getting longer and longer. Several years ago, after struggling to read a book that I thought I “ought” the read and like, I finally gave myself permission to quit that book. Then I decided that for any book, if I wasn’t engaged by 1/3 to 1/2 way through the book that I would stop and move on the the next book that I wanted to read. Reading is my joy and pleasure and trying to force myself to read a book that is “good for me” is just not something that I want to do.

  • Tim

    I love reading so much and it has been such a cornerstone of my life that reading without enjoyment is almost inconceivable. I am however familiar with the should-books. Fortunately there are many books with great and powerful ideas that are also a riveting read. I find I generally have an interesting-but-professional book going in parallel with something lighter.

  • Dave Pettit

    I love audio books while I am driving or mowing the lawn. I introduced my wife to the habit, and she can’t quit either. They are free at your local library. Some libraries subscribe to, which would allow you to use an MP3 player to listen to your favorite author.
    Audio books make trafic jams less of a hassle.

  • Thing is, though, not everyone enjoys the same kind of books — I’m currently making my way through Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers and Dante’s Nuova vita, both of which are a joy to read (in my opinion), and which makes people look at me in horror. “At the same time?” they say, dismayed. “Wow.”
    But reading, say, Nora Roberts or Dick Francis would be *physically painful* for me. It’s more important to find out what it is you like to read.

  • I only read things that I don’t want to if I have to. The only exception to this in recent times was Tolkien’s The Silmarilian. I found I couldn’t read more then a few pages without puting it down in boardam, but five minutes later I was picking it up again.

  • At any given time, I am reading three to four books/periodicals/newspapers etc. One of them will inevitably for fun.
    It should also be noted that the idea of what is “fun” differs from person to person and it could well be that reading some heavy tome may well be fun to someone!

  • As always, you’re spot on. One of the turning points for me as an adult was realizing that if I wasn’t enjoying a book, I could put it down. I didn’t HAVE to finish it. What a relief!

  • Interestingly, reading is often one of the most cited “lost pleasures” by the women I work with. I think one of the reasons for this is that–as others have pointed out–we feel we *have* to finish a book or read a book that teaches us something, instead of just reading for pleasure or relaxation.
    For me, reading has always been one of the richest and most long-lasting treasures of my life. I always seek out used bookstores when on vacation and travel with at least 1 book in the car at all times. Here’s to adding more fun into our lives!

  • Jaydee

    Said it before, but will say it again…I read all of Catherine Ryan Hyde’s books repeatedly…there is always such a good “moral to the story is”. I love “The Notebook” by Nicholas Sparks, absolutely cannot stand the romance novels (but one of my dear friends, who is an FBI agent, loves them.) She says she needs the UN-reality check. And I can really get lost in a good action story by Lee Child, Joseph Finder, or Harlan Coben. I don’t want to think about what that says about me, but guess I am a tad bit strange, yet books have been a necessity in my life as far back as I can remember, in my 3rd year of life.
    Anybody remember Hugh Prather or Rod McKuen, philosophying poets for me and I carried Notes on Love and Courage around for two years as well as one of Rod’s poetry books. Yep, I am strange but at least now, most of my books I pass on after reading them (not Catherine Ryan Hyde, those are keepers) I enjoy dropping them at the homeless shelter. Thanks for this topic, Gretchen. I love to hear about other people’s reading interests.

  • Jaydee

    “students’ interest in the passage was far more important than the “readability” of the passage—thirty times more important”
    My grand daughter is 2 yrs. and 6 months old…she knows the meaning of words like: lackadaisical, priority, ambidexterous, sacroiliac, etc. She knows her phonics and loves to be read to. Her television is limited to Sesame Street in the AM and half of a movie before bed that is child appropriate. I am so proud of her parents for not allowing television to be the babysitter. Both parents work, us two grandmas each take two days and the Mom is a fitness coach with Friday off. I have to laugh at the strange balance we must be, other grandma still talks babytalk, like Meow-Meow for cat and says things like “Does her oweee hurt her?” And I say things like “Well, why don’t we just be lackadaisical today? And she will answer, “We will just be lazy!” Then when Mom gets home from work, they talk about her “day,” ie: taking blood pressures, checking weight, eating healthy, giving presentations, etc.and Charlee asks really good questions. Then they discuss Charlee’s day.
    I am not around any other children her age so she seems really advanced to me. At least in intelligence, but she is typical as far as being in the ‘terrible two’ stage. Very bossy, says no to just about everything, wants what she wants. She knows as soon as she does it that it won’t fly, goes on her own to the corner, takes a deep breath, counts to ten, then comes out and says, “I’m sorry now, I will be nice.” I would love to hear about other kids the same age……

  • The simple advice to just read what you want really hit home for me. I used to have a habit of constantly trying to force myself to read things I thought should be read.
    But in reality, the best books are always the ones I found all on my own.