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How—and Why—to Read For Joy

Katherine Center, author of What You Wish For, has one piece of advice for readers: find pleasure in your reading. 

By
Katherine Center
4-minute read
what you wish for

A few years ago, long before there was a pandemic, I decided I needed a battle cry.

And so I picked READ FOR JOY.

It was advice to myself—but also to everybody else. It was something I’d discovered, after a lifetime of being a dedicated devotee of reading, that I wanted to share with other people. It was one of the smartest things I’d ever figured out about how to live a happy, nourishing life, and I felt like I shouldn’t hoard the insight.

I couldn’t really have anticipated how much we’d come to need that advice.

But we definitely need it now.

[Reading for joy is] not reading only ‘happy’ stories—but giving yourself permission to read what you want and trusting yourself to find the stories you need.

Here we are, suddenly, in the middle of a pandemic that’s raging out of control. People are scared, worried, grieving, anxious. We’re surrounded by uncertainty and despair. Forty percent of us are officially depressed.

And so, I’m doubling-down. Read for joy.

There’s a quote I love from Nora Ephron:

Reading is escape—and the opposite of escape.

Reading takes us away from our lives but also connects us more deeply to them. It focuses on others but somehow teaches us about ourselves. It turns us both outward and inward at the same time.

But it matters what you read. The right stories at the right time can be exactly the balm you’re looking for—and the wrong stories can put you off reading altogether.

That’s why now, more than ever, you should read for fun. Read for pleasure. Read what you feel like reading. What grabs your interest.

Whatever that might be.

When you find those stories—the right ones for you on a soul-deep level—it feels right. It feels good. It feels like joy.

If you think about it, reading really is a loaded thing. We did it all through school growing up, and we got judged and graded endlessly on our abilities. It’s fine. It is what it is. Reading is important, and it needs to be one of the Three Rs.

But academic reading is not the only good reading. Literary reading is not the only reading that matters. I don’t know about you, but I absorbed an idea from school that stories existed in a hierarchy, with Camus and Kafka and Tolstoy up at the top, and, I don’t know . . . maybe category romances down at the bottom. As if stories could be ranked, linearly, from “good” to “bad.”

But then I grew up and figured something out—stories aren’t a hierarchy; stories are a universe. There are all different kinds of good.

In adulthood, after much studying and over-thinking, I’ve decided different kinds of stories are like different kinds of music. Sometimes you’re in the mood to listen to Ella Fitzgerald. Sometimes it’s Bach. Sometimes it’s Earth, Wind, & Fire. Every now and then, you might need to just belt out the Grease soundtrack all day long. Different music connects you to different moods and different parts of yourself at different times. You don’t worry about it. You don’t judge yourself for it. You just sing along.

It’s the same with stories.

Different stories give us different virtual experiences, let us work through multiple kinds of struggles on imaginary stages. Maybe you need to work on being brave, or you need to feel hopeful, or you need a good cry. Maybe you need to solve a puzzle, or face down a monster, or fall in love. The right story can help you do that: Connect you to whatever you need to learn, or feel, or struggle with, and help you think through life-questions so deep that you don’t even know how to ask them.

But only if you pay attention.

Only if you let yourself read what you want to read, instead of what you think you should want to read. Only if you follow your own compass. Not your high school English teacher’s compass, or your snobbiest friend’s. Yours.

That’s what reading for joy means to me. Not reading only ‘happy’ stories—but giving yourself permission to read what you want and trusting yourself to find the stories you need.

When you find those stories—the right ones for you on a soul-deep level—it feels right. It feels good. It feels like joy.

So read for fun this pandemic. I give you permission! Read adventures and romances and mysteries. Read page-turners and gut-busters and barn-burners. Read stories that turn their own pages, and keep you up all night, and make you feel achingly, astonishingly alive.

Everything’s uncertain these days, but here’s one thing that’s true. The stories you read from the heart will change your life.

Trust me on this. You won’t regret it. Read for joy.