6 Short Books to Get You Out of a Reading Rut
Let me start with a disclaimer: reading ruts do not always necessitate a ‘cure.’ Sometimes, if your focus isn’t cooperating with your will, you can just choose to listen to whatever it is that’s stopping you from reading, cut yourself some slack, and do something that replenishes you in another way.
I’m not a fan of our culture’s toxic obsession with productivity, but I’m even less of a fan of always striving to be ‘productive’ with your hobbies. So, assuming that you aren’t trying to shame yourself into restarting your reading habit, but simply feel the siren call of being immersed in a book after some time away, I’ve collected six short books that represent six different approaches to easing back into reading.
1. "She and Her Cat" by Makoto Shinkai and Naruki Nagakawa — for a comfort read
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
One strategy for returning to your bookshelves is to start with a comforting read, something that deals with warm feelings and doesn’t pose formal challenges. The cozy mysteries I’ve read haven’t managed to do that for me, but reading She and Her Cat was a soothing, replenishing experience, resulting in that same coziness I think mystery readers are sometimes after.
She and Her Cat is a translated collection of short stories set in the same universe — a neighborhood outside of Tokyo, with its resident cats and their owners. It starts with the tale of Chobi, an adorable kitten adopted by a young woman whose life seems otherwise empty. Through Chobi we meet more cats living in nearby apartments or streets, like getting a glimpse of a miniature town through a lit window.
The humans don’t always know that their cats know each other, but as outsiders looking in, we get to see their parallel struggles, worries, and dreams alongside those of their cats. This earnest, wholesome book is comforting without being simplistic or sentimental.
2. "Alison" by Lizzy Stewart — for immersive illustrations
Graphic novels aren’t in any way ‘simpler’ than regular novels, but the illustrations and smaller word count can make it easier to slip into the flow of a story if your mind has been struggling to visualize written imagery.
This debut graphic novel sees its protagonist — Alison — marry young and attempt to settle down for a ‘normal’ life in Dorset in the 1970s. She feels a vague emptiness until she meets an older artist who introduces her to painting and the art world. Soon, she follows this promising romance to London, where she realizes the class divide between her upbringing and the sphere of London artists.
Through beautifully composed pages, we see Alison make her way through this new landscape, find her artistic voice, meet kindred spirits, and leave naivety behind. I read this graphic novel in one greedy sitting, completely transfixed.
3. "Apartment" by Teddy Wayne — for a compulsive story about writers
Teddy Wayne’s Apartment largely takes place in a rent-stabilized New York apartment, occupied by the novel’s fortunate narrator. The apartment has a spare bedroom, and since the narrator knows his classmate Billy’s financial difficulties, he lets Billy have it rent-free.
It’s 1996, and they’re both enrolled in Columbia’s MFA writing program. Living together, they develop a friendship of great intensity. Billy’s presence soothes the narrator’s loneliness and need for connection, but also heightens his insecurities and competitive tendency. The tension between them illuminates some of the darker sides of male friendships, and makes for a magnetically ominous reading experience.
This melancholic and nostalgic snapshot of 1996 New York will have you anxiously turning pages.
4. "How to Focus" by Thich Nhat Hanh — for a fragmented intro to mindfulness
If the reason you’re in a reading rut is that you feel like your mind is too restless to hold on to a fictional story, this short book of insights into mindfulness might be what you need. Don’t let the title confuse you: this isn’t a book about how to be productive or efficient at your job. It’s the exact antidote to that mindset: a series of gentle meditations aiming to help you find (or work toward) a sense of mental clarity.
The term ‘mindfulness’ is everywhere, and it’s beginning to sound like a tired buzzword. Even if you think mindfulness is just another wellness trend, this short book — written by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh — will provide a space of refuge you can retreat to, much like the practice of meditation. With its simple, kind, and compassionate language, it’ll make an impression, and hopefully touch whatever’s restless in your mind with a soothing hand.
I’ll leave you with my favorite quote: “So sit like a mountain. No wind can blow the mountain down.”
5. "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" by Leo Tolstoy — for philosophical reflection
Translated by Anthony Briggs
If the reason you’ve found yourself in a reading rut has been a streak of disappointing reads with nothing to chew on, try turning to a classic, like Tolstoy’s famous novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
This short book begins with the news that Ivan Ilyich, a 19th-century Russian judge, has died — the readers attend the funeral, where we meet his widow (preoccupied with whether he’s left her any money) and his friends (organizing their next game of bridge). That is the indifferent world Ivan Ilyich has just departed, after an injury that left him increasingly ill and approaching death.
Up until that point, he had chased everything society deemed desirable and was satisfied with his accomplishments, but during his ailment, he began to be irritated by his family’s lack of compassion and understanding. Narrating his final days, the novella explores how he begins to doubt the principles he has lived his life by as he gets closer to death.
This novella is not light reading, but it promises great philosophical questions, masterful characterization, as well as a lifetime’s worth of wisdom.
6. "Convenience Store Woman" by Sayaka Murata — for bonkers energy
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Another way to get back into reading is to begin with something that feels startlingly original, and Sayaka Murata has you covered with Convenience Store Woman. It’s a book I can’t stop recommending, about Keiko, a 30-something woman who works for a Tokyo convenience store.
Generally feeling cornered by society’s constant demands and expectations, Keiko only feels free in her capacity as a Smile Mart employee. There, no one thinks she’s falling short of ‘correct’ behavior, as she’s perfectly able to copy other employees and liberate herself from the unnerving pressure to get married, pursue a more ambitious career, or assimilate to everyone else’s trajectory.
That’s all fine and well, except it goes on for 18 years, and her family’s frustration builds up. Being a good employee is no longer enough, and Keiko has to find a way out. Equal parts depressing and hilarious, this novel is told with a deadpan irony that perfectly captures Keiko’s sense of alienation — and it can catapult you right out of a reading rut.
If these approaches don’t help, you can try switching to a different format (audiobooks can be really fun), but you can also allow yourself to experience this natural pause in your reading habit, and let it run its course. Reading will always come back to you, at one point or another.
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