Rescue reading for troubled times

Suggested reading for when you can’t concentrate on anything.

Who can read a book right now? It’s so hard to concentrate on anything or get anything done. It’s hard to scan beyond restrictions and stats of infections, hospitalisations and deaths, a daily loop with minor variations.

And reading, which used to be a joy, seems like hard work for a concentration span which has been whittled by anxiety and circumstance. Also, hard work for tired eyes that stare at screens too many hours a day.

But there is still comfort, solace and reassurance to be found in the written word. There’s a quietness there for your mind to melt into that you won’t get from streaming a series or trawling a feed. There’s food for your soul.

So here are my reading rescue suggestions. Firstly, I’m suggesting paper as something tactile and familiar and to delineate it from the screens of our working days. Secondly, I’m suggesting short forms. The idea is to replenish those ravaged inner reserves any way we can.

Short stories

The right short story can take you away and deliver you back, (perhaps even slightly changed) in the time it takes to drink a cup of tea. Feel the satisfaction of starting and finishing something. Feel the relief of genuine distraction and the space to make your own connection with what’s on the page. I’ll be posting a series of suggested anthologies to read over the next weeks.


Something else which can be enjoyed in short bursts and picked up and put down again for intervals. Don’t make it hard for yourself. Pick up what you have on the shelf, what you know from studying at school, or something that’s been recommended.

An old favourite

Take a favourite book from your shelf, one that feels like a best friend and is therefore no effort at all, despite the time between sittings. Read it at whatever pace you want because you know what’s coming anyway. Abandon without any hard feelings. Sometimes it’s just nice to re-connect with familiar words.

Old diaries and letters

Pick out an entry/letterl at random. You probably won’t remember anything that’s mentioned. You may be impressed by your turn of phrase or kind of mortified. If you’re like me, you’ll often be left feeling sad about the passing of time and for your former self without knowing exactly why. But look at that, half an hour just passed and you were somewhere else altogether.


Collections of letters, diaries or essays are all great for their pick-up and put-downability. They also offer diversity in subjects and styles, so you get the feeling of reading widely even though it’s all from the same source.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be posting suggested anthologies and collections for short reading. Keep an eye out on Twitter @ninakcullen or subscribe to my newsletter below for updates.  

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Valé Mary Oliver

The late American poet Mary Oliver blocked out life’s white noise and tuned in to our natural world.

The American poet Mary Oliver died nearly a year and a half ago and I’ve just found out. Somehow that adds to the loss.

For anyone who thinks (some) poetry is too hard (and I’ll gingerly raise my hand), read Mary Oliver. There are no tricks and turns for the sake of it.

One of her great gifts, was to take a moment in time and hush the rest of the world so we could kneel down with her and take a really close look. Her words magnify the natural world and return it golden and holy.

She had such reverence for life and her passionate questions have become mantras to many. 

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

These words from her poem Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches? were written on a post-it and stuck above our kitchen sink until it would stick no longer. Then I moved it to my desk, this pink post-it,  water-stained and sun-faded with a message too vital for the recycling bin.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

In The Summer Day she calls us to action again. How can we fumble through our days on repeat when life is in session?

Whenever the world is turned up too high or there’s too much interference, reading Mary Oliver mutes all the chatter. It’s quiet, suspended there in her poetry, watching birds arc in the sky, noticing mushrooms on the forest floor or the trees as theylean in and sigh together.

Her North American environment is completely alien to me. We have bushland and heat and seasons that aren’t so neatly marshalled. But what she showed us was universal. Moments. Wonder. Reverence for silence and nature. I think we can all understand that.

Thank you, Mary, for trusting your words to us.