Reach for a book instead of the remote—it'll help you check out of your own head to learn about someone else's.
Right now, I'm sitting across from five piles of books I haven't read yet. And it isn't my fault: I have absolutely no self-control. I love to buy books. I ask for books for my birthday and for Christmas and for any and all other reasons. I'm like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, minus the animosity towards everybody who lives in my city and the close proximity to a cursed castle. (Also, I don't sing or read to sheep.)
Books have always been my place of refuge and escapism, and even if reading about something disturbing or unpleasant (see: true crime, history, or politics), I'll lose myself in facts and ideas I'd never been introduced to before. Reading is the most relaxing thing I do that makes me feel like I'm doing something worthwhile.
Which is probably why it replaced Netflix as my avenue for self-care.
Not that I don't love watching TV. In fact, it's the opposite: Television has kept me company through the best and worst parts of my life, and I will never get tired of watching and re-watching shows I refuse to stop quoting. But where most of us rallied around many of the same shows in the early 2010s, the abundance of new television has translated into endless options. And, as someone who writes about pop culture, watching TV has begun to feel like work. I lose myself in it less than I used to. I think about what it means and how it fares instead of how it makes me feel. (Minus a few exceptions.) And even when I put on reruns of The Great British Baking Show or whatever's on the Food Network, I'm less escaping from my life as I am studying somebody else's. I love TV and will die with my arms wrapped around Netflix, but it is by no means a way to unwind.
And neither is looking at a pile of unread books.
I was coming home from New York after doing an event for my own book, Nobody Cares, when I realized I'd maybe gone too far: Customs asked to go through my suitcase and flip through the trillion new books I was bringing back (because there were so many and it looked weird), and thanks to their efficient unpacking skills, I couldn't fit what I'd brought back into my bag. Then, I came home, sorted them in my "to be read" piles, and realized that based on how much I was currently reading, I'd get to my new acquisitions sometime in 2024. Which is stressful. Because where unwatched television doesn't accumulate in your bedroom, unread books do. And if I wanted to maintain my decades-spanning love affair with bookstores, I needed to start making headway. So I began to look at my book collection differently. Because I had to.
While I'd previously treated my favourite shows as a way to tune out, I began treating books as a way to step into a place far from where I was. The thing is, each book is the gateway into an author's frame of mind, experiences, research, or imagination. When you read, you have no choice but to surrender yourself to someone else's world and the rules in it. You can't pick up your phone, can't mindlessly text while still engaging, and you can't answer emails. You're in it. And maybe even learning at the same time.
Plus, I've learned from my years of binge-watching to switch up the types of book I read so that I don't feel like I'm researching to excess or living in an endless Gillian Flynn novel. And that to commit to reading, you don't have to forgo all other types of art.
Because that's the thing: TV stopped becoming a means of mental buoyancy when I didn't give myself a break; when I used it as a gauge through which to measure my cultural clout and when I marathoned through series without stopping to actually enjoy it. And that's not good for anybody (especially TV writers, whose work deserve more time than that). And that's also not self-care or self-preservation—it's self-sabotage because you can't possibly win.
So I've started to use books as a life raft from, well, life. I seek refuge in stories and essays and oral histories and check out of my own head and day-to-day to exist in or learn about someone else's. And I take comfort in knowing my to-read list will be endless; that I will never have nothing to read. But I am doing my best, and have my "read" pile as tangible proof that I can finish something. Or maybe more specifically, that I have access to so many worlds simply by opening the cover and turning a few pages.