Designing Your Happy Life

Reading tips, apps, and so much more


Summer is a good time for a reset. I usually like to do an annual mind map: organizing my dreams and the plans that help ground me on one sheet of paper. It’s usually not cluttered. Categories include works-in-progress, long-term plans, and things that make me happy. The book I want to write and am writing; the class I really want to squeeze in.

The sheet makes concrete what’s truly important to me. Designing the broad strokes of my life gives me a sense of hope and agency.

Some friends design their reading life and catalogue what they read every year in spreadsheets or notebooks — it’s a big task, and I think it is quite incredible if you can do that. Check out Jeremy’s piece at Zapier.com for ideas.

My trusty friend Catherine Stoodley, a neuroscientist who regularly finds her way into my column by no fault of her own, suggested “seasonal best friends” from her shelf. She was talking about books that ground her that she reads again.

She gave me two examples: Bridget Jones’s Diary in December and Year of Wonders in the summer. I haven’t read the latter, but it’s about the plague in the 1600s, so I have to dig deeper on that with Catherine, don’t you think? (In school, kids use smiley faces in essays. I think one might work right now for me.)

I like what Catherine says:

“Re-reading books…I think books can be a comfort…like visiting an old friend at the holidays. Also, it is interesting to see if the book reads differently as your life experiences change over time. And some books feel very seasonal — certain books are perfect for hot summer days and others require a duvet and hot tea. But if you revisit them every year, it can be a way of marking the seasons…both of the year and of life.”

What should one read again even as the books we have yet to read pile up exponentially? What’s on your list?

I tend to have a stack of books I re-read when I am working on my novel — they include Light Years by James Salter and The Gathering by Anne Enright. (Here’s Ms. Enright on her own reading list.) I also like re-reading the urgent and graphic scenes in Joe McGinniss Jr.’s books.

When I’m writing or rewriting, I try not to read outside my designated space of Books of Reverence, but only those that apply quite literally to my novel. For me, the re-reads are often poems: Dom Moraes’ Ayodhya poems; Goblin Market by Rossetti; “Ulysses” by Tennyson; Auden; and Yeats.

Then there is the proverbial stack on one’s bedside table. This year, my main reading has been catching up with titles Parul Sehgal cited in her New York Times piece on #MeToo books. I just finished one of these books, Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise. (Read Katy Waldman’s fascinating essay “Who Owns a Story?” in the New Yorker.)

Choi’s book has some of the best sex writing I’ve read, and it brought me back to those heady days in high school and college when I did a lot of theater. I have some regret that I gave it up when I started working full time as a 23-year-old. Maybe that’s something to put on my mind map.

From Sehgal’s list, I bought what I could not bookmark in the free library apps — Libby or Overdrive — or in my current favorite audio and reading app, Scribd.

Scribd is an unlimited monthly subscription service to audiobooks and online books and articles. There you can read Amitav Ghosh, or your kids can listen to the Big Nate books by Lincoln Pierce, which will occupy them for hours until you force them towards more variety.

On Scribd, you won’t find everything you’re looking for, but you don’t pay extra for specific titles like you will on Audible, and the monthly subscription is less costly.

Companies like Chiki Sarkar’s Juggernaut provide online books in India, but I think you pay per book. I’d love to know if there is an online audiobook resource of Indian writers.

On the long summer drives through the greenest hills of Virginia, we listened to Becoming by Michelle Obama and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My kids were hooked on the latter as the Yorkshire accents spilled out around us.

We all love lists and how-to videos to facilitate a quick guide that sets you on the right path — to meditation, to get a task done, to nirvana. Inspired by the wonderful Carrie Callaghan’s column on how to be a good moderator, I came up with a list of things I like to do. Here goes:

  1. Dream. Make a mind map about your aspirations and the good parts of your life.
  2. Laugh. Make a seasonal list of books or poems you go to for inspiration and laughs. I’m adding Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl to mine because it makes me laugh out loud, especially the scene when the protagonist is in the bathtub nursing a sore body, and her boyfriend hosts a party where people start congregating around the tub.
  3. Connect to culture and local politics. I try to read the local paper when I can to be part of a community. This is a local issue I’m supporting right now on equity and public schools that anyone interested can sign: #MakeJelleffPublic. Protest letters and leaflets that organize communities are important to write and read.
  4. Read your friends and family, too. My friend Roger Sippl has published a lovely new book about life, love, and loss called Bridgehampton.
  5. Share your favorite writers. I’ve just finished Hillbilly Elegy and want to share two of my favorite artists from Appalachia: Randi Ward and West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshmann. After Hillbilly Elegy, I plan to read other books about Appalachia, including those mentioned in Dwight Garner’s piece in the New York Times.
  6. Read your friends’ suggestions. My friend Amy Devlin, who is writing a young-adult novel, has been recommending Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, so it’s on my list now.
  7. Try to read my book-club books because I just love being in my book club. You can start one, too; here’s advice on a special kind of book club from Liza Achilles in the Independent.
  8. Support and read well-researched journalism and opinion. I personally love the Atlantic and have been a subscriber since the 1990s in India. I will read anything by the thought-provoking, brilliant Caitlin Flanagan (even when I disagree with her I want to hear her perspective on culture).
  9. Laugh, but this time, let a dog or parrot help you out. Please note: It doesn’t have to be your own; the more dogs in your life, the funnier your life will be. And my friend John’s parrot has so much character, especially when it imitates John’s daughter Ella’s big baritone voice, “Papa!” There is a memoir in there that I’m hoping Ella will write. (Has anyone read My Family and Other Animals recently? That’s definitely a read-again type of book.)

Now, if you’re a writer, please go write and don’t do anything else until you have finished. Gotta run.

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