I just read an article on the popular home design website Houzz: “What You’re Reading this Summer–and Where.” Readers submitted their suggestions for books and their photos of favorite places to curl up with them–comfy chairs, plush sofas, porch gliders, and poolside chaises.
It got me thinking. I love nothing more than to lose myself in a long novel, and some of my favorite childhood memories involve trips to the musty library in the quaint Long Island town where we spent many summers. I’d collect a stack of books to last me a week and settle into an old wicker chair, legs dangling over the arm, to read until my mother insisted I go outside for some fresh air.
I still get that same feeling of anticipation when I’m searching for new literary material, though these days I browse Amazon for titles to download rather than library stacks for volumes to check out. But when I considered the question posed by Houzz, I realized I no longer have a special spot where I go to read. In fact, as much as I enjoy the act of reading for pleasure (as opposed to reading for professional development, which I tend to do in my office), unless I’m sick or on vacation, I never sit down just to read.
Most of my recreational reading takes place in snippets. I always squeeze in a few pages at bedtime until I can’t keep my eyes open anymore but I consider that more a habit, like brushing my teeth, than an activity sui generis. Sometimes I prop my iPad on the bathroom counter to read while I’m drying my hair. If I’m not checking my phone for messages or making a move on WordsWithFriends, I may read while waiting for an appointment or eating lunch.
So why don’t I ever stretch out on the couch with the dogs curled up at my feet to spend a few hours with a good book? Because it would feel too self-indulgent. Pangs of guilt for not tackling my never-ending To Do List would tarnish the experience.
I know I’m not alone in feeling uneasy about taking the time to engage in an activity purely for enjoyment. I frequently tell others with over-developed senses of responsibility and excessive stress levels to unwind by doing something pleasurable and engaging. Perfectionists in particular have trouble allowing themselves, even when relaxing, to give their achievement-oriented behaviors a rest. (Think about the golf enthusiasts obsessively dedicated to improving their games, or the recreational runners always pushing themselves to shave a few seconds off their race times.)
Maybe it’s too much of a leap to expect a chronic striver to hop off the “Doing” treadmill from time to time and embrace the Zen of “Being.” But for those in need of a rationale for resting, it might help to know that even business consultants and productivity experts are touting the value of “strategic renewal” through relaxation. As Tony Schwarz of The Energy Project, a management consulting organization, says: “Downtime is productive time.”
So let’s put an end to feeling guilty about relaxing. As for me, I’m going to find a cozy place to read my book.
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