Everyone, even the most painfully or chronically indecisive person, has favourite things.
It’s normal. Tastes, likes and dislikes are a basic human feature, fundamental in cultivating the thing we call “identity.” We make playlists, pick outfits, choose friends and choose lovers all because of those deep-seated preferences that quietly arrange our lives.
And when we engage with something that doesn’t quite fit those preferences, we might experience some discomfort.
That’s because our preferences are also a symptom of our comfort zones.
We do it with reading, too. If we enjoy books, we might gravitate toward certain genres, authors, subjects, time periods, moods — things that fall within the realm of what we know, what makes us feel safe, at ease, or without stress.
But, there’s value in leaving, or at least expanding, your comfort zone. Especially when it comes to reading.
Watch: President Barack Obama’s summer reading list. Story continues below.
Why should I do it?
“I read everything,” Roxane Gay, the American author and visiting professor at Yale University, told The Guardian in a 2018 interview. “The number one thing I tell my students is read diversely. And I’m not talking about demographics, though that’s part of it. Aesthetic diversity, genre diversity. It matters because it just makes us better informed, and it protects us from our worst instincts.”
Those instincts, maybe, have to do with inertia. When we get too set in our ways, we can get trapped in a loop where we fail to experience new things, cease to learn, inhibit our imaginations and, ultimately, fall out of touch. “Comfort,” as P. T. Barnum once said or wrote, “is the enemy of progress.”
The hopeful promise of reading has always been one of world-expanding: of broadened horizons, unexpected bits of knowledge, and accidental, genuine empathy.
But arrival at those virtues becomes impossible when we fail to read beyond the insular realm of our own comfort. You wouldn’t, for example, lock yourself in a room and intentionally misplace the key. Imagine how much life you might miss, staring at those same four walls!
What are the benefits?
“It is surprisingly easy to read homogeneously,” Randall Klein wrote at LitHub in 2018. “It doesn’t even need to be an active rejection of genre, just a passive acceptance that by tending to read one type of book, it can come at the expense of others.”
But when we make a conscious effort to seek out texts we don’t usually interact with, our worlds can open up in so many ways:
Intellectual growth — This might be the most obvious benefit, since it’s widely accepted that reading is like fitness for your brain. When you read outside your comfort zone, you’re encouraging yourself to learn new things and to engage with ideas you might not have come across otherwise. Admittedly, it’s also just impressive to be that one person at the party who everyone wants on their team in a game of trivia.
Empathy — “Reading,” Joyce Carol Oates once wrote, “is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin.” In fact, researchers have found that reading improves our capacity to understand what other people think and feel. It’s safe to say, then, that reading more diversely can further expand emotional intelligence.
Development of imagination — Sameness begets boredom. But when we read material beyond what we know, it can compel us to think more deeply and imaginatively. It’s an exercise in expanding our worlds and inspiring creativity (There’s even a term for this: “conceptual blending.”).
How to do it:
Ask for recommendations (especially people you often disagree with)
They don’t have to know you very well. In fact, it might be interesting if they don’t know you at all. People who have different tastes from you might be able to introduce you to books, authors and ideas you never thought of exploring yourself. It helps if the person doing the recommending is an avid reader, but they don’t have to be.
Try visiting a new indie bookstore
Where do you usually go to get your books? Is it from your local Indigo, where you often select a “Heather’s Pick” from the table at the front? Going somewhere new can make you physically escape your comfort zone. Independent or specialized bookstores offer titles that you won’t find elsewhere, and the people who work there often have a deep knowledge of the store, since the stores are smaller and privately owned.
Get friendly with librarians
Contrary to their frequent TV depictions, librarians aren’t always stony and intimidating. They have the job they do because they love books, and love to talk about them. Plus, they have a professional expertise that can help you find exactly what you’re looking for — or, in this case, not looking for.
Consult the New York Review of Books Classics list
Since it started publishing back in 1999, the NYRB Classics series has established a glowing reputation for releasing not only reputed and canonical books, but also experimental novels, cult favourites, translated texts, memoirs, reportage and belles lettres — often by forgotten authors you may never have heard of. Many of the books even open with an introduction by a writer or book critic to prime you for what’s ahead.
Join a book club
Reading doesn’t have to be an entirely private experience. In fact, not only does a book club encourage you to read beyond what you might have selected yourself, but it also gives you an opportunity to participate in a discussion about the material afterward.
Read what influenced your favourite authors
In 2015, a list of journalist and author Joan Didion’s all-time favourite books surfaced from a page written in her notebook. She always said Hemingway was one of her greatest influences, but the list also included a number of other writers: Baldwin, Mailer, Adler, Dostoyevsky — all very different people with very different concerns.
Many authors have such lists, and if you love them, reading material they love can be both a way of expanding your literary diet and also getting to know how the author arrived at who they are.
Judge the book cover, judge the book title
The golden rule which has long prevailed over the moral book reader is not to judge a book by its cover. Of course, this mantra means something broader: you shouldn’t decide the value of a thing based solely on how it looks. And yet, first impression does mean something.
If you find yourself attracted to a book cover, maybe there’s a reason for it. There’s nothing better than trawling through a used bookstore and picking something out just because the title sounds interesting.
Read about a topic you like in a new format
It helps if you have some element of comfort even as you step away from it. For example, if you find yourself constantly attracted to mystery novels, try out a narrative non-fiction book about an unsolved legal case. Or, if you’re always talking about pop culture with your friends, consider a cultural critic’s book of essays. If you love romance novels, try a book of love poetry. There are lots of reading lists out there that can help.
Read for diversity
Expanding your comfort zone can be as easy as seeking out new perspectives. Look for authors who might have different experiences from you, or consider participating in online challenges that will encourage you to. Read authors of different ethnicities, sexual orientations, abilities and gender identities. Read authors who are immigrants. Read authors who were formerly incarcerated. Read more women authors. Read books by or about refugees. Intentionally look for authors whose experiences vary dramatically from your own.
Read “bad” things
One man’s trash, as they say, is another man’s treasure. There are plenty of things out there many people might hate that you’ll love, and vice versa. But taste should be a matter of sensation. Tabloids. Books that are banned. Novels that were critical failures. Poetry collections everyone says they hate. “Smut.” Things tucked away at the back of the shelf.
As you read more, you’ll get a better idea of the things you enjoy, even in genres you aren’t a huge fan of. Plus, knowledge is everywhere, if you listen for it carefully. Reading something “bad” might help you better understand why you don’t like it. There’s value in that, too.
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