For one reason or another, I love setting creative standards for various aspects of my life. My criteria for a five-star recipe: healthy, delicious, inexpensive, and easy to make. My specifications for a good vacation: it balances relaxation and activity, exposes me to something new, promotes the strengthening of relationships, and is enjoyable. My benchmarks for the best hobbies: inexpensive, convenient, growth-promoting and fun. I certainly prepare meals, take trips and engage in activities that don’t meet all of my criteria, but in my mind, the best of the best in all of these categories are ones that satisfy most, if not all, of my personal guidelines.
My favorite hobby — one that meets the four criteria over and over again — is reading. I’ve found, over the years, that even when I’m reading voraciously there are certain things that I can do to heighten my experience. Believing that even a good thing can always be made better (should we frost those brownies? YES), I embrace these three rituals that take my reading to the next level of enjoyment, education and meaning.
1. Reread one or two books every year.
At some point during my adolescence, my mom gave me two coming-of-age novels, “Up a Road Slowly,” by Irene Hunt and “The Chosen,” by Chaim Potok. These stories quickly became favorites of mine, and so I returned to them often, and then eventually I fell into the ritual of re-reading them each once a year — “Up a Road Slowly” during my summer vacation and “The Chosen” over the winter holidays. Re-reading these books year after year is as familiar and comforting as cuddling up in an old, favorite sweatshirt or eating my Grandma’s Italian rice. It’s also a doorway to reflection. Nelson Mandela once said “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered,” and I think the same thing could be said revisiting an old book.
2. Follow a reading cycle.
My supervisor at my first job taught me many valuable professional and personal life lessons, one of my favorites having to do with his practice of reading books through a rotation of genres (his choices: history, mystery, literature and psychology). When I first adopted this practice, I chose four categories that interested me and I thought had the potential to improve my life — work-related nonfiction, Pulitzer Prize winning novels, self-help books and classic literature. But eventually, I decided to go much broader in my cycling categories. Now I just toggle between fiction and nonfiction, and within each of these, contemporary books and those that have withstood the test of time. This practice keeps me reading, preventing me from getting in a rut where I don’t read because I don’t know what to pick up next, and it makes a habit of exposing myself to a variety of books.
3. Choose a “challenge read” each year.
I imagine that I am one of many who has a whole list of books I feel I should have read at some point, or theoretically want to read, but have a hard time motivating myself to actually pick up (“Moby Dick,” “Great Expectations” and “One Hundred Years of Solitude” are at the top of what I refer to as my “Read Before I Die” list). A few years ago, I started choosing one book from the list to read during the year, and this practice of picking a “challenge read” has had great results. It has served as a motivational force, helping me to move from “I should do this,” to “I’m doing this;” it has facilitated the expansion of my internal library, forcing me to read books that I would have otherwise put off opening indefinitely; and it has given me a relatively easy goal to meet each year, providing a boost of satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment when the reading is complete.
Following these reading rituals isn’t something that I have to do. My cycle of categories isn’t a college course syllabus, so I have the freedom to step outside of it, and there are summers that have flown by only for me to realize on September 1 that I haven’t yet read “Up a Road Slowly.” Overall, though, I follow these practices and embracing them has brought additional joy, order and meaning to my reading life.