This is an essay by Julia Bower.
Readers often have a favorite section or two that we head to immediately when visiting a library or bookstore. Most people decide shortly after they acquire the ability to read independently that they are primarily either fiction or nonfiction readers. Many of us go beyond that, developing an allegiance to a particularly genre of fiction, field of knowledge or era of history, sometimes even narrowing our selections to a particular subset of authors. This specialization has its advantages, including streamlining the book selection process and gaining expert knowledge of your chosen subject. On the other hand, automatically defaulting to only one type of book can also become a kind of mental rut.
Ruts of our own choosing can feel like snug, comfortable homes rather than ruts when we are ensconced within them. Usually, it’s only after we outgrow a rut enough for it to pinch us a bit that we can see it for what it was. One way to jumpstart the growth process is to move outside of your comfort zone. Venturing into new reading territory can not only help us refresh our mental outlook through learning new facts and facets of the world, but also help us grow as individuals, gaining appreciation for experiences and ideas very different from our own.
Nonfiction—Thinking like a Child
Given the abundant range of books available, both in print and electronically, reading is also a very accessible means to begin to stretch our own limits—while still comfortably seated in a favorite chair. For example, if there is a subject you have always found daunting, one you have looked upon as a mental Mt. Everest you would not dare to climb, try reading about it. This doesn’t have to mean picking up a confusing text. Instead, seek out a book which provide a general reader’s introduction to the subject, or even a children’s book about the topic. This side-door approach to a subject can yield fascinating new information. Children’s books in particular tend to emphasize the imaginative aspects of a topic, making it more approachable not just for kids but for grownups who are novices to the subject matter.
Fiction—Walk a few chapters in someone else’s life
It is easy to pick up a novel which reinforces our existing ideas, one in which the main character or narrator shares with us a similar place in the world and similar point of view. To challenge yourself to move beyond your comfort zone, think about a group of people who confuse you, then seek out a novel actually written by (not merely about) a member of that group. Books provide an imaginative window into other people’s lives, allowing us to shed, at least temporarily, the inherent limitations of living inside our own skin. Allowing yourself imaginatively to share space with someone of a very different background than your own can be a refreshing experience on multiple levels as you allow yourself to think about what life is like for a Muslim woman, a transgender man or someone living with a disability. If your eyes glaze over when thinking about reading a whole book by someone vastly different from you, try a sort of sideways approach. Find a book in your preferred comfort zone genre that happens to be written by someone different to you—perhaps a lesbian mystery novel or a science fiction book by someone born in Mexico.
The qualities which keep us limited in our reading choices have a strong similarity to the qualities that tend to limit us as individuals: inertia, fear and prejudice. By moving beyond our reading ruts, we also open ourselves up to the potential for becoming not only more intelligent and informed about the world around us, but also wiser and more compassionate people.
Julia Bower is a professional writer and teacher of yoga and meditation. She is also an avid reader who overcame a fear of science resulting from bad experiences in science class by reading children’s books about zoology, botany and astronomy. The only drawback she has found to expanding her reading is a tendency to acquire even more books.