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Readers love those books that are hard to put down, the ones that keep you up all night reading just one more chapter. And readers with busy lives often get breaks from the mental load when they have a good book in hand.
But let’s face it: sometimes, you have to put down your book. And sometimes it feels like you almost never get a long stretch of time to read.
This feels especially true in my current stage of life when I’m parenting young kids.
Breaks to read can be rare and brief, and there’s always a kid or chore that demands attention.
I think one of the most surprising things to me about parenting is the mental toll of these demands.
From the moment I wake up until the moment I fall asleep, my brain is swirling with the minutia of keeping our lives running–unless I can turn it off for a bit.
For me, the best way to do that is reading a book.
Whether you have young kids or just a busy life, if you’re a reader, you know how rejuvenating a little time with a good book can be.
I think most of us covet those long, leisurely stretches of time to read (I don’t think I appreciated the reading time I had pre-kids, and I definitely look on with a little envy when I see people on social media participating in reading marathons!).
Unfortunately, those stretches don’t always come, and in some seasons it’s hard to even focus for more than a few minutes at a time.
At times like these, reading feels more frustrating than energizing.
The key during these times is to find books that allow you to keep reading, but that also allow you to dip in and out with little difficulty.
They don’t necessarily need to be short, but they need to keep you coming back for more, and they can’t be difficult to get back into–or to stop reading when you need to.
Here are ten books that I found I was able to read in short stretches of time.
Ten Books that Offer Quick Breaks from the Mental Load
It’s been a number of years since I read this book (and the other three that come after it), but what I remember most about this memoir is how much fun I had reading it. I recall telling another bookish friend at the time, “These books are just making me happy right now!” There is no large, dramatic story here, but James Herriot’s telling of his life as a country veterinarian in Yorkshire is warm, funny, and touching. Herriot spares himself no embarrassment but proves himself keenly observant and sensitive as he interacts with the characters—human and animal, by turns eccentric, sad, and inspiring—who pepper his stories. This is true comfort reading for me, and the way the connected stories are told–in small vignettes–makes it easy to jump in and out of.
This sweet book follows Don Tillman, an Australian genetics professor who decides to embark on what he calls The Wife Project to find his perfect partner. Don likely has Aspergers syndrome, and he figures his best chance of finding someone is using a scientific approach.
Along the way, he meets Rosie, a woman he quickly eliminates from The Wife Project, but who intrigues him with her search for her biological father. He quickly jumps into The Father Project in the first of many bursts of spontaneity and excitement that Rosie brings into his well-ordered life.
The story and the characters are sweet, funny, and likeable–an easy read for someone without the time or energy to focus on heavier prose and plot.
A book of “advice on love and life” is not the kind of thing I would normally read, but the raves piqued my curiosity. Strayed, known as “Sugar,” the anonymous advice columnist for The Rumpus, gives the kind of advice we all hope to get from our best friends, or our therapists. She doesn’t always have the answers, but she does have perspective, and she is searingly honest in her analysis of some of life’s biggest questions. Strayed’s columns are short and to-the-point–perfect for the overwhelmed reader and not something that needs to be read all at once or in order.
Harry Potter is a comfort read for so many people, and I think the people who read the books over and over again are often looking for something engaging but not taxing. I can attest that this is also true for first-time Harry Potter readers, and that the books can easily be read and enjoyed in small bits. My daughter and I are reading the series aloud, and the last one we read (The Chamber of Secrets) took us six months to finish. Azkaban is my favorite so far, but any of them can be enjoyed in small chunks.
On the heels of the devastating loss of their infant son and brother, the Bright family makes the decision to move to Philadelphia to join (and eventually inherit) an uncle’s funeral home business. Told from the alternating perspectives of mother Pauline, elder sister Evelyn, middle sister Maggie, and youngest sister Willa, the family soon faces another devastation: the Spanish Flu pandemic that literally leaves bodies at their doorstep and an orphaned infant in their care.
The family isn’t immune to the losses wrought by the flu and World War I, and in their grief they grasp for hope and purpose in different ways, keeping secrets to protect themselves and one another.
While not a light read because of the subject matter, the characters are vivid, the chapters are short, and the writing is clear, making this an easy book to start and stop, but one that offers more depth than many lighter reads.
In 1945, English combat nurse Claire Randall walks through a circle of standing stones in Scotland and finds herself in 1743. Separated from her new husband by 200 years and at the mercy of a suspicious clan embroiled in conflict, Claire must use her cunning to survive and make her way back to the 20th century. Young Highlander Jamie Fraser emerges as a potential ally and protector in an alien time and land. As she and Jamie grow closer, Claire faces decisions about her life–including when and where she wants to live, and who she wants to be with.
While I and many other readers find Outlander to be “unputdownable,” I read this series in the years when I was least able to read for long stretches–when I had a baby and toddler at home. The immersive stories stayed on my mind when I wasn’t reading, making it easy to dive back in when I was next able to pick up the books.
Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks: A Librarian’s Love Letters and Breakup Notes to the Books in Her Life
Dear Fahrenheit 451 is the blog I would write if I had a little more snark in me–only in book form. I had so much fun reading Annie Spence’s letters to the book she loves, the books she’s retiring from the stacks (she’s a librarian), and the many books that have stayed with her in various ways.
This was a light, funny read, and I was able to read this with kids playing loudly around me. I looked forward to seeing if Spence covered any of my favorites books. She hit on a few that I’ve loved, as well as some others that I’d now like to read. But some of the funniest letters were to the surprising finds that she weeds from the stacks (The One Hour Orgasm and Principles of Bloodstain Pattern Analysis, anyone?). If you love books about books, this is one of my favorites.
Crazy Rich Asians is a funny, voyeuristic look at the lives of a group of extremely rich families in Singapore. Concerned with their status, appearances, and possessions, the news that one of their own is marrying Rachel, an American of modest background causes an uproar. Rachel herself is thrown into to the fray with no warning or inkling that her fiance, Nick, came from such wealth.
From learning that the new people in her life are crazy rich, to realizing that they can also just be kind of crazy, Rachel and Nick have to fight to stay together in a world of people who are determined to tear them apart–and who are used to getting what they want.
This is less a romance than a “wealthy people behaving badly” story, and the excesses never fail to shock and amuse. Crazy Rich Asians is the first in a trilogy and has been adapted for film. This strikes exactly the right balance of light and smart.
Rainbow Rowell knows how to write stories that feel light, but that feature characters you care about and situations that have higher stakes than they may seem at first. She did this masterfully in Eleanor & Park, and Fangirl–while ultimately a little lighter–is another winner.
Cath is a freshman in college who feels like she’s being left behind. Her twin sister Wren doesn’t want to room with her and is no longer interested in the Simon Snow fandom they’ve been devoted to for years. Cath isn’t ready to let go of her fanfiction, but she isn’t sure where she fits in this new world of cranky roommates and charming classmates.
Book lovers will relate to Cath’s devotion to her favorite characters (even if you’ve never been part of a “fandom,” as I haven’t). The story is light enough for easy reading but with characters developed enough to make you care what happens next. Rowell also wrote a follow-up to this novel that delves into the world of Simon Snow.
When Alice wakes up on the floor of the gym, she finds herself in an alternate universe: one where she is 10 years older, has three children she doesn’t remember, a husband she no longer loves, and a sister who speaks to her in strained tones. Alice’s memory is gone, and she’s trying to figure out how to live a life she no longer recognizes–and get back the man she loved ten years ago.
Moriarty is never a go-to author for me because of the suburban “mommy politics,” but she does reliably write easy-read novels that won’t tax your brain too much. What Alice Forgot was a decent lighter read with an interesting spin.
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