By Miun Gleeson
After some time off, I returned to therapy this month. And like all good writers-in-therapy eager to document the salient takeaways—short of asking for a full transcript of my session—I was ever the diligent notetaker as my new therapist gingerly floated some terms my way. High-functioning anxiety. Burnout. Foreboding joy. Delayed grief. Catastrophizing. Pen poised, I immediately sat up straighter in my chair as we pivoted to the actionable “So what are you going to do about it” part of the session. Not surprisingly, we spent some time discussing the popular trifecta of options that are meditation, medication, and mind tricks. But by the end of the session, my therapist decided to give me an entirely different set of marching orders:
“Go read a book . . . that isn’t maybe so dark and depressing.”
During the Q&A intake, my therapist had asked what I liked to do in my free time, and I shared my love of reading. With my usual mix of excitement and sheepishness (“I swear I’m still fun at parties”), I told her I exclusively read nonfiction. What kind? Oh, you know, historical nonfiction, biographies. More specifically? Books on death, dying, suffering, and tragedy. Those are my kind of easy, breezy reads on my bedside table.
I wasn’t always this way. My earliest foray into reading was very much in the spirit of joyful escapism we seek in books. As a child, I was all in on The Baby-Sitters Club and Beverly Cleary, indulging in the chance to delightfully lose myself in the pages of a book. But as I grew older, my choice of books changed dramatically.
In high school and college, I gravitated toward heavier topics: from historical accounts of the Holocaust and plagues to more intimate firsthand renderings of personal tragedy. Then I learned that graduate school is basically an intellectual license to read and write about your obsessions. I spent six years buried in fascinating books on death and mourning rituals. To many, I know my book choices are odd. Selections like How We Die don’t readily endear me to many book club invitations, and I’ve been okay with that. And that’s because—contrary to what many may assume—I do think those who revel in being in the literary company of death and all his friends are far from lacking in their compassion and humanity. We’re actually overloading on it, for better or for worse.
The devastation of my father’s death a few years ago sent me into a type of spiral that took these niche reading preferences to another level. Some people cope with loss by doing a decisive about-face from the very triggers of a tragedy. But I have faced it head-on, and rather obsessively. Through a curated compendium of books, my mourning has been defined by an unrelenting desire to learn more and dig deeper about my father’s death. It is a reading list that maps out my topography of grief and the various demands I desperately need to fulfill. Among the books: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (“I need answers for what killed my father”), The Bright Hour (“There have to be other people who understand what I’m going through”), Being Mortal (“I’m scared of dying one day, too”), and even The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (“Maybe decluttering can offer cathartic healing”). Therapy has always played second fiddle to my pursuit of textual comfort and control.
So this was my starting point when confronted with the daunting task of just . . . dun dun dun . . . reading for fun.
Following the therapy session, I stood in front of the “popular beach reads” section of the bookstore with little clue on where to start. After some time, I selected People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry. I had never heard of this author or read any of her books. But I liked the engaging synopsis, and a quick scan revealed Henry’s novel is a no. 1 New York Times bestseller, boasting accolades from a few authors I did recognize as well as even more effusive praise from thousands of five-star reviews from Amazon readers. Solid start. To be honest, I think what ultimately sold me was a testimonial praising the book as “deeply emotional,” which I interpreted as a close enough cousin to my preferred “dark and heavy.” Done. Take my money.
People We Meet on Vacation was 361 pages of effortless and entertaining fun. I read it in a day and a half, a nearly impossible feat I made happen by sneaking off to various corners of the house during the rare interim when my kids weren’t sending out a search party for me, and a very, very late night.
The book is funny, romantic, and smart. Poppy and Alex are two twentysomething best friends hopscotching around the world as they struggle with their feelings for each other. Yes, this charming couple ends up together, but this predictable ending didn’t diminish how much I truly liked the story. I was rooting for these characters, reveling in their sharply tuned banter, and enjoying the author’s nonlinear structure. The experience of reading this book was just different. There was no emphatic highlighting or notations in the margins. No complex feelings to exorcise. No object lessons to commit to memory.
This book was very much a perfect getaway, as promised by numerous reviews. The lovely, low-stakes experience of reading People We Meet on Vacation was a reminder that reading does not always have to be punitive, didactic, or in forensic service of an obsession that may or may not be entirely healthy. Reading can just . . . be.
Because as much as my book choices have been critical to my very personal way of healing, I also concede that they have been an extension and enabler of my anxieties. My therapist’s recommendation was rooted in the aim to give myself a break. To give myself some grace by not letting my one pastime be a pain point, unnecessarily.
We signify and recall certain periods in our life in various ways. Maybe it’s a specific song, unfortunate fashion choices, the permanence of tattoos or photos, relationships we made and lost during that specific time. But for me, the books I’ve turned to have always been the most accurate yardstick of measuring where I am in my life. I expected to feel tremendous guilt from deriving so much joy from reading a fun book. I was surprised that I did not. The joy of reading this book at this moment perhaps signifies a new season of life where I stop wondering if I am ready and deserving of light and levity again.
I’m not completely swearing off books on death, but I also know Henry’s book was not a one-off. People We Meet on Vacation was like a permission slip to remember and indulge in what reading can be for me in other ways. If, as the comforting adage assures us, we indeed read to know we’re not alone, I believe we also read to know that we’re eventually going to be okay.
Miun Gleeson is a writer and essayist whose bylines have appeared in Motherwell, TODAY Parents, INSIGHT into Diversity, POPSUGAR, Her View From Home, and more. She is also an educator who has taught undergraduate courses in composition, rhetoric, and literature for the past decade.
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