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Reading Brings Us Joy: Three Ways to Stop Being Too Serious About It

Do It Just For Fun

Two girls laughing holding books

This Tender Land

Our Monday night book club had been enjoying a discussion about William Kent Krueger’s novel, This Tender Land. Most everyone enjoyed the novel, and few had any negative comments about it. Overall, it was well-received and the group members were happy they had read it, willing to recommend it to someone else.

The novel takes place during the Depression and focuses on four children connected to the Lincoln Indian Training School in Minnesota. The Director of the school is a cruel, manipulative woman who is exceptionally mean to the two white boys enrolled in an all Indian school. Albert and Odie are brothers, and Odie is most often the target of the Director’s punishments. After abuse, a tornado, and an unintentional murder, these four children escape from the school in a canoe. Their goal is to get as far away as possible from the hated school by floating down the Gilead River, eventually arriving in St. Louis.

The story is narrated by “Odie,” a strong-willed boy and one of two white students among all the Indian kids, who has been the whipping boy for the school’s director.

Do You Get More Critical the More You’ve Read?

Without empirical evidence, I can’t prove it, but I think the more you read, the more critical you become. After reading for decades, studying literature, and consuming well more than a thousand books, I may have become a bit jaded, finding small flaws or asking questions about plot, character, dialogue, or structure. I hate the idea that every page I absorb makes me more critical, but I think there’s truth to my theory. You can’t, after all, be a critic without having read lots of books.

Even though I enjoyed This Tender Land, I struggled with the depth of soulful insight provided by the pre-teen main character. I marked passages spoken by Odie, noting that I doubted a boy of twelve would really have that kind of self-awareness. I mentioned my misgivings to the group, and the oldest, most voracious reader of the group, admonished me.

Nonagenerian admonishing me

A Reprimand From a Nonagenarian

“Well, Missi,” she said, looking over her bifocals at me. “You’re taking this far too seriously. We read for enjoyment, not reality.”

She was right. Sometimes, I let my literary critic get the better of me. I have to whip it, chain it, and put it in a cage so that I can go back to absorbing a story just for the sheer pleasure of it. I have to stop trying to second-guess the author and undermining the characters so I can have fun with them.

Sometimes it’s good to read like a kid with no pre-conceived notions. Read like a first-grader just discovering that words have meaning. Turn pages like a child who can’t wait to get to the end of a story. Enjoy the story as a toddler enjoys colorful illustrations.

For avid readers who struggle with being too analytical, here are three ways to enjoy more and think less.

1. Curtail Your Critic

Turn your inner critic off at the start. Remind yourself that you are reading for FUN. Cut the author some slack. Forget literary techniques, character motivations, and plot structure. You don’t have to write a paper on the book. No book projects. No worries about getting a grade for your reading comprehension. All you have to do is enjoy the story.

“Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” — Kurt Vonnegut

2. Be a Child Again

Let your child’s heart play with the book, (as long as it belongs to you!) Make drawings, notes, marginalia, underline things. If you feel like marking a passage by turning down the corner of a page, do it. If you want to fold a page in half to mark your place, do it. Use colored ink and colored pencils to add the art of your ideas to the pages. The book becomes a part of you the more you interact with it. Why buy something and be afraid to touch it? Treat your books like playmates. Imbue them with color. Embellish them with art.

3. Make Your Own Decisions

Pick books that interest you, not because everyone else is reading them and not because they’re on the bestseller list. Read what sounds good to you. If you pick up a book because you’re drawn to the cover art, then that might be the one for you. If a book blurb grabs your interest, choose that. Find an author you love and buy those books. If you love series, read each one in order. Unlike life choices, no one will judge you for your choices. If the goal is to enjoy books, pick what works for you.

Delve into the genre of your choice. Histories, mysteries, romances, how-tos, thrillers, biographies, cookbooks, or self-improvement. It doesn’t matter. Just enjoy…even if you’re into alien detectives solving true crime who practice necrophilia and arrange flowers in their spare time, it’s okay. (Your secret is safe with me.)

Readers don’t read because they have to. They read because they have fun doing it, a reminder that books are meant to be enjoyed, not endlessly analyzed.


Check out more essays about the art and enjoyment of reading in "Need to Read."


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