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In 2013, aka “the year I almost lost my mind completely,” I decided to read more books.

I actually started around June 1 with an idea that I would sign up for my library’s adult summer reading program. The prize pack offered was for any adult who read 1,000 pages in the 8-week program. I didn’t really do the math, but when I made it through 294 pages by day two, I realized this wasn’t much of a challenge for me. I soon collected my prize pack (I think there was a bookmark, a pencil, and coupons to local businesses) and had to up the goal for myself.

My terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year started Christmas Day of the prior year and escalated to total misery by the time the New Year rolled around. I threw myself into therapy and self-help books to get through initial shock of everything, but by June, I was tired of working on myself, especially when I realized I wasn’t most of the problem.

I shared with my friends, “In an effort to give myself something better to do than self-torment, I have decided to throw myself into reading. Oh, sure, I always read, but I mean READ read. Actually finish all of the books I’ve started. Get through a book in a day or two. Pick books I WANT to read rather than ones I HAVE to read or think would be good for me. Touch paper. Dog-ear pages. Tell people how awesome ‘this book I’m reading’ is.”

Earlier in the year, when I was in the throes of “what is wrong with me? how did this happen,” a friend took me aside and said, “I have some unsolicited advice for you. Read.” I responded, “Oh, I read all of the time. My therapist gives me book assignments. I’m trying to learn how to meditate. I’m reading Pema Chodron.” She stopped me and said, “no, read fiction. Anything you want, but just read fiction. It has helped me so much. Has gotten me through some really bad times.”

I was puzzled, but said I would give that a try. And, hoo-wee, baby! Let me tell you how that changed my life.

I upped my challenge beyond 1,000 pages to read 100 books within the year. I counted backwards to January and was around 25 books or so at my starting point in June. My friend’s advice had come to me around May, so I had just started to dip my toe into the “only read fiction” waters. But with an aggressive reading goal before me, I dove into my fiction reading list and started whipping through pages.

A few books in, I got it. I saw the complete wisdom of her advice.

I could learn innumerable life lessons in fiction writing and none of it had to be about me. None of it was homework to change or improve myself. I could learn without feeling pressure. I could identify with these fictional characters without having to dissect their problems. I could just be in the book and absorb the story.

My mind relaxed. My overall mood improved, while my moment to moment mood would ebb and flow with the storylines in my books. I could read about complicated and sad scenarios, but not feel too overwrought, knowing this were creations of the author’s mind. I could feel things without feeling too hard.

I also discovered and rediscovered fiction genres. I learned that I LOVE LOVE LOVE young adult (YA) literature and historical fiction. I had no idea, as I hadn’t explored either as an adult. I rediscovered my love of Victorian and transcendental writers, and found a few I didn’t like at all. I appreciated a few trashy novels for the quick and easy reads that they were, and found subgenres of chick lit that were very light and fun, like hanging out with a friend.

My introduction into historical fiction has turned into something of an obsession. These days, I have to make sure I read outside of that genre. And I no longer read self-help books. Occasionally, one will sneak in, as it seems work-related, but I rarely can finish them or only do so begrudgingly. They just no longer hold any appeal to me.

I do read non-fiction, typically in the form of a biography. It’s people sharing their stories that attracts me: this is me, in all my messiness and glory. I’m like you more than you realize.

I have been so glad for the adventure of ditching self-help and turning to fiction to help myself in a kinder, gentler way. Over and over again, I have learned that people share similar struggles and joys; mine are not unique and that is very comforting.