By Alex Kava
Research shows that reading fiction beats stress better than any other activity, including listening to music or taking a walk. It lowers the heart rate and eases tension in the muscles. It also creates a distraction by transporting our minds away from whatever is causing our stress. It’s no wonder that 35% of the world read more during the pandemic. In the US alone, consumers spent 22.9% more money in 2020 on recreational reading.
But for me, I’ve always depended on books to get me through life’s challenges. Grab a pen. I’m about to drop a whole blog full of book recommendations.
I started a book journal decades ago. Notes in the margins indicate what was going on while I was reading each novel. During the early days of my publishing career, I read mostly when I traveled.
I don’t like flying. Never have. Still don’t. Up until five years ago, I had to be a frequent flier. There were conferences and dinners and book tours that took me across the country and to other countries. It wasn’t unusual to do 10-12 cities in a two-week period. That meant I had to do something to keep my mind off of being 38,000 feet above control. Books kept me company. They distracted me. They calmed me.
I have vivid memories of a snowstorm delaying one of my connections in Milwaukee. Flights were being canceled. It was late at night, which meant sleeping at the airport. My flight was one of the few still scheduled to leave as soon as the wings were de-iced. I thought I was lucky until I boarded. The snow was blowing everywhere as I buckled up. I was reading Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield series. I told myself that Jane had more interesting problems than I did at the moment, and I read.
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time going to independent mystery bookstores, so I started asking the owners for recommendations. Not the top sellers for that week, but books and authors they loved. What began as supplying my next mid-air fix became a lifetime of favorites.
It was through those recommendations that I discovered: Jan Burke’s Bones, Lisa Scottoline’s Everywhere Mary Went, Gayle Lynds’ Masquerade, Elizabeth Bloom’s The Mortician’s Daughter, and Katherine Neville’s The Eight.
At conferences I’d retreat to my hotel room any spare time I had, and I read. For a quasi-introvert, it was a way to recharge before I had to “be on” again. I was meeting and getting to know a lot of authors at cocktail receptions, signing in “the chutes” at BookExpo America, and on panels at conferences. My reading list grew because I wanted to read their books and meet their series characters. James Rollins’ Sigma Force, Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles, C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett, Paul Doiron’s Mike Bowditch, and Karin Slaughter’s Will Trent are just a few.
Have you ever read a book and later, just seeing it or hearing the author’s name triggers a particular memory? Six months after I bought a house outside of Pensacola, Florida, Hurricane Ivan hit. Nine months later, Dennis. In the weeks that followed, we cleaned and piled debris all day, taking breaks to eat bologna and mustard sandwiches. Someone had given me a paperback copy of Carl Hiaasen’s Stormy Weather, so that’s what I read in the evenings to the luxury of one lamp connected to our generator. To this day, every time I read a Carl Hiaasen novel, I think of bologna and mustard sandwiches.
There was a period of six years that I spent too much time in hospital waiting rooms, including the Mayo Clinic at Rochester and the University of Kansas State Veterinary Hospital. Too much time spent waiting and praying and reading. Glancing through my book journal, I see that’s when I brought along some good company: Lisa Black’s Takeover, Taylor Steven’s The Informationist, and several of Linda Castillo‘s Kate Burkholder series.
During the pandemic, Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X and JF Penn’s Arkane series helped distract me. Then, when I got Covid-19, I escaped to Where the Crawdads Sing with Delia Owens.
Looking over the book journal, it struck me that so many of the notations spoke of stressful times, though I read every single night before I go to sleep. I noticed there were no indications of something like a vacation. A reminder that I’m a bit of a workaholic. I rarely give myself a pass to just read unless I’m in an airplane, at a conference, on a book tour, in a hospital lobby, or on a working “vacation.” Last October was the exception.
Five days on Pensacola Beach, on the deck, in the sunlight and the moonlight, reading. In the margins of my book journal, These Silent Woods, by Kimi Cunningham Grant, received the notation, “October 2023—Pcola Vacation.” I think I’d like to add more “vacation” notes in the future.
So, readers, what are some books that helped you get through stressful times?
Wow, good question! I remember being sick during the summer in college and reading Nelson DeMille’s Cathedral in one day. Ditto Linwood Barclay’s Fear the Worst during a long, long flight to Australia. And I read Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile during what seemed like an equally long night in the ER with my mother
Stephen King’s On Writing—I remember reading a chapter right after a really emotional therapy session during which I’d cried so hard my eyes were puffy in my failing first marriage… and actually laughing out loud at his traumatic recollection of Eula Beula the babysitter. Also, The Red Tent and Dean Koontz’s The Watchers. I wasn’t published yet but read books then that have inspired me in my career since.
I’m with Lisa in that I really enjoyed reading just about all of Nelson DeMille books over the years – they were all terrific “get away from today’s travails” trips. Lately, I’ve been reading Marie Benedict’s wonderful stories about women throughout history that were influential and brilliant, , but not recognized “in their time.” I also love Susan Wiggs books. Great post here, Alex, thanks!
38,000 feet above control. Ha ha ha. I feel the same. Love many of your recommendeds, Paul Doiron, Karin Slaughter, to name just two. I often return to childhood faves when stressed, not that my childhood reading which necessarily register as such. Stephen King never fails to get me thru!
On another note- I have been keeping a list of books read since 1968, at the suggestion of my Aunt Jane. I never thought of adding journal notes – what a great idea!!!
Thanks for the suggestions. I know reading helps. Enjoy reading.
My niece asked me once to give her a list of authors I liked to read. Three typewritten pages later she had her list. I love some of the same ones you listed and I also discovered I prefer to read books with recurring characters. I makes me feel like I am getting a visit from a “friend”. Looking forward to visits from Jack Reacher, Gabriel Allon, Hayley Chill and James Reece soon.