Riding the Winter Waves: Reading for Health 

January 2, 2021 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Elizabeth Blackwell writing on happiness in 1845

Here’s the second part to a post from just after Thanksgiving 2020, “Riding the Holiday Waves: Writing for Health.” Because some consider early January as post-holiday, have changed the title slightly to “Winter Waves. Certainly, the waves of winter weather and emotion are here. I am feeling them. You? 

Since that postprompted by Janice Nimura’s PBS News Hour video on the topicand in which I confessed my own fraught history with daily diary entries, I have decided to feature another—somewhat easier—method for “riding the waves.”  


As you likely know, reading can be the ultimate spa treatment.  
In fact, in contrast to writing about yourself through journaling, reading may take you out of yourself in a healthy way. Writing, on the other hand, may bring on too much self-focus. 

“self-consciousness” is “the disease of the present day. . . . Whatever becomes the object of constant thought or attention becomes unduly magnified. The individual’s own importance is thus greatly increased in his own estimation”*    British and Foreign Medical Review, 1844

As aOctober 1844 British and Foreign Medical Review author wrote of that era, “self-consciousness” is “the disease of the present day. The author continued: “Whatever becomes the object of constant thought or attention becomes unduly magnified. The individual’s own importance is thus greatly increased in his own estimation”* 

Eerie, huh, in this age of social media and ill health among young people?

The medical author wrote in response to the highly popular Life in the Sick-Room (1844), a memoir in which then-chronicinvalid Harriet Martineau obsessed over her ill health. Although Martineau wrote in a pattern typical of narratives of suffering endured with spiritual ends, and although she later recovered enough to call herself “cured” of her prior “feminine” ills, the medical author’s point is clear—writing intensively about oneself, and constantly looking inward, could contribute to illness. 

Rather than journaling for your health, then, perhaps reading would suit you better?  

Since my own reading lately has been focused on health (and women’s health in the nineteenth-century, in particular), I thought I’d share a few thoughts gleaned from readings on those topics and my experiences through the years.  

Read to Escape    

Pick up a book that takes you completely out of where you are now. Could be a different time, or place, or both. Escape to a warm southern climate in a past century, or time travel forward to a futuristic world in another universe. Reading is a healthier escape than most mind-numbing drugs, and engages the imagination in a way that film does notA fun title that took me across time and space and found me smiling at unexpected moments is Juliet Grames’s The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna.

Cover of Juliet Grames’s The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna

The characters move from Calabria (in Southern Italy) to Connecticut, from the early twentieth-century to the present. The title should tell you that this novel is not merely fact-based historical fiction but a fun romp with a magical character. 

Read for Stimulation

Let a book take you out of the doldrums by prompting you to see in new ways. Choose a title that takes you into a new arena, a new world of experience.  I’ve started Molly McCully Brown’s Places I’ve Taken My Body.

Molly McCully Brown’s Places I’ve Taken My Body

It’s a collection of essays that foregrounds her experiences as a disabled woman, traveling in the American south and in Italy. It takes me out of myself (escape!) but also stimulates me to think about how others live. Poignant and painful moments—most of her lived experience—with cerebral palsy differ immensely from mine. And yet some of her insights—about anger and love, for example—speak to me, with my healthy spine and nervous system. 

And for those who want a little more “exercise” to maintain their health: 

Read and Highlight 

Undergraduate students do this deed too much (and often do nothing else). But as you read you can underline, highlight, check the margin, or place a sticky-note on the page (depending upon who owns the book and the approach toward the page as sacred) – when you come across a line, a sentence, a paragraph or passage that speaks to you. Confession: I am far from an undergraduate student, but I do sometimes fall prey to marking too much.

Nell Painter’s Old in Art School

See the field of blue flags I stuck in Nell Painter’s Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over! This book, an unexpected gift from my sister, surprised and stimulated me to mark many moving passages. This step was the start of thoughtful reflection. The next step is more challenging.  

Read and Reflect in Writing  

Take up paper or keyboard—or talk-to-text through a transcription app. Ask yourself what triggered you in the marked passages, and then answer the questions. Start writing, typing or talking. It might be that the ideas or character actions resonate with what you already believe, or it might be the opposite. Perhaps you see something completely new. The answers are only for you—not for any teacher or external critic. 

These written reflections circle back to journaling, of course, but with a different spinA reading journal—notes about reactions to what you’re reading—provides direction and emotional health in a way that open-ended journaling does not.  

Nimura’s book on 19th-century physicians, Emily and Elizabeth Blackwell

As an example and a closing, I leave you with a passage I read recently in Janice Nimura’s The Doctor’s Blackwell. Elizabeth Blackwell, in Asheville, North Carolina, wrote home to her mother, Hannah, in Ohio: “I feel very wakeful, just at present . . . . My brain is as busy as it can be, & consequently I’m happy.” ** (33).  Otherwise disconnected – from family and from any she might deem friends, Elizabeth grounded herself by reading. Perhaps you may similarly find yourself “wakeful” and “happy” by reading this winter . . . and throughout 2021.  

Thanks for reading along and, as always, let me know your thoughts. You can share your response here, or send me a message through social media.  

And as a bonus this month, I’m offering a list of my ten books of life writing–memoir and biography–which moved me most in 2020. Let me know if you’d like a copy. 

Meanwhile, happy reading! 



Quoted by Beth Torgerson in an essay on Harriet Martineau’s writings (Victorians: A Journal of Culture and Literature, Number 135, Summer 2019, p. 14). 

**Quoted by Nimura (p. 33). 

Etta Madden