Personal Development Made Me Hate Reading, But Contemporary Romance Helped Me Love It Again

Personal development books are not all that they’re cracked up to be. Here’s how they made me hate reading!

by Sarah Garvey | Sarah Garvey is a New Jersey-based freelance writer, retired professional dancer, popcorn enthusiast, and lover of rom-coms. You can check out her romance novel newsletter, Tropes & Cheese, here.

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I’ve always been an avid reader. I powered my way through reading charts in elementary school, and The Scholastic Book Fair felt like my own personal birthday party. I couldn’t get enough. Even in high school and college, I rarely left my house without a book.

I made a point in my early twenties to read the classics. I moved to New York City, back in the days before anyone got cell service in the subway, so I used my 40-minute commute as an opportunity to read any of the classics I somehow missed (for example, I somehow got out of high school never having read To Kill A Mockingbird?!) and re-read some that I didn’t love the first time around (I’m lookin’ at you, The Handmaid’s Tale). It was amazing.

But sometime in my mid to late twenties, I got brainwashed by influencers, #BossBabes, and Hustle Culture. I was led to believe that if I was going to spend time reading, it had better be something that would improve my life or teach me a skill, or else what was the point?!

And I believed it.

I’ve read so many mediocre “personal development” books that I could probably write my own at this point. But I won’t, don’t worry. I’m convinced that every self-help book can be boiled down into one or two paragraphs, but a couple of paragraphs won’t sell out speaking engagements, so they have to babble on for an entire book when really all they’re doing is making people feel crappy.

*deep breath*

By this point, I truly believed that reading for pleasure was a waste of time. There were too many things wrong with me, at least, that’s what the books insisted. Each one assumed I was this destitute, poor little woman who couldn’t get her life together and was hanging on by a thread, but luckily, THIS ONE BOOK with a beautiful white woman on the cover held the solution to all my horrible problems.

Never did one of these “must-read” books say “hey, maybe you’re a normal person who wants to learn a little more about this interesting topic.”

So unsurprisingly, I just started feeling really bad. And eventually, I just kind of stopped reading altogether.

I knew that every time I picked up a book someone said I “just had to read!” I was going to be told that I sucked at something, that I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t using my time properly, that I wasn’t eating right, that I wasn’t caring enough, that I was caring too much, that my habits weren’t good, that I didn’t structure my day correctly, that I should be making more money, that if I stopped caring about money it would magically float to me, and on and on and on and on and oh my god make it stop, please!

Luckily, one June day in my early thirties, I heard Tom Hanks had written a book of short stories. I can’t seem to resist anything Tom Hanks does, so I hopped online to see if I could find it (which I eventually did, and it’s delightful). But in my search, I found another book called Waiting for Tom Hanks by Kerry Winfrey. I thought it sounded fun and all but guaranteed a Happily Ever After, or a “HEA” as Bookstagram has coined it. So, as I happened to be headed on vacation, I figured one cozy little romance novel wouldn’t hurt, right?

I felt like I had to hide it. Reading a romance novel? In public?! What will the other grown-ups think?! 

(I should point out here that Kerry Winfrey’s books are all delightfully sweet and very closed door… it’s not like I was reading hardcore porn. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

So guess what happened? I LOVED IT. I was able to read a book and smile and laugh and cry and be just so delighted that in the end, they lived happily ever after.

None of my personal development books had a happily ever after. They had a “don’t screw this up or you’re going to ruin your life…ily ever after.” 

Wait… is this what people who read for fun get to experience all the time? 

So, I dove in head first. I read any HEA I could get my hands on. Some delightfully wholesome and some edging closer to that line of “okay, actually, maybe this IS hardcore porn.” And I love every second of it.

Now I read across genres. Romantic HEAs are still my favorite, but I’ll read it all. Between hard copies, my Kindle, and my Libby app, I’m usually working on at least two or three books at once. I can’t get enough.

I’ve even read a few more personal development books since then! However, I choose them very carefully. I’m mindful of who I take recommendations from, and I don’t read something just because it’s popular. If there is a particular skill I want to learn, I seek something out. If there is a habit I want to get into (or break!) I find something that suits that particular niche.

But it better be good – my reading time is precious, so books that make me feel like crap don’t get to stay in my library for long.

I feel sad for the time I wasted, believing that reading had to “better” me in some way. It’s funny because the truth is that reading anything will better me. Whether it’s a sweet little romance, a gripping thriller, a compelling mystery, a fantastical sci-fi novel, or even an autobiography, reading allows me to step out of my own mind and into the mind of someone else.

I’ve found that…

  • Romances are an opportunity to live in a world not marred by pandemics, war, and political tension, where the guy gets the girl and it all works out in the end.
  • Thrillers allow me to sit on the edge of my seat and physically feel the suspense, while logically knowing I’m not in any real danger.
  • Mysteries give me a chance to live my unrealized dreams of being a detective, helping the characters solve the mystery at hand.
  • Sci-fi lets me live a completely different existence where none of our Earthly rules apply and truly anything is possible.
  • Autobiographies give me insight into another person’s life, and I can almost always find something to relate to, empathize with, or just enjoy in their story.

Note that none of these include “…and make me feel like crap about myself because I’m a terrible person on the verge of ruining my life!”

I can’t believe I wasted so much time not reading. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Kerry Winfrey.

Cheers to romance and a happily ever after.

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