One of my earliest accomplishments in life was winning the "Amazing Reader" award when I was in fifth grade.
At my elementary school, we would take Accelerated Reader (AR), tests once we finished a book. We would get prizes for reading a certain amount of books or get a ticket for the end-of-the-year field trip.
The AR tests would tally the amount of books you read in a year, as well as the number of words.
So, in fifth grade, my "Amazing Reader" award read: "Brenna Toshner you are an amazing reader. Congratulations on reading 2,087,496 words!"
That gold award with stars on it and the medal that went along with it were my most prized possessions because it was the first time I felt like I excelled at something — and it was something I actually loved doing.
During elementary school and part of junior high, I was the kid with her nose in a book all day and night long.
But when teachers started assigning books and handing out more homework than I had ever known was possible, I stopped reading for fun.
In high school, I wasn't interested in spending my free time reading after sitting in class for six hours, then following it with four more hours of homework. If I had extra time, I wanted to watch my favorite TV shows or go out with my friends.
I lost my love for reading and stopped appreciating what a gift it could be. When I was assigned to read books for English class, it was a requirement and a grade, not something I was doing out of enjoyment.
As reading became synonymous with homework, I began to resent it. It wasn't enjoyable. It was a chore. Even in college, there were times when I felt like I may want to start reading consistently again, but classes were exhausting and I ended up spending my free time elsewhere.
Then came the pandemic.
Like most people, I had more time on my hands because I was staying at home. I was looking for different hobbies I could take up and also spent an absurd amount of time on TikTok, which got me thinking about my old favorite hobby — reading.
There are a lot of people on TikTok who love to read and share their book recommendations and reactions — better known as BookTok.
After taking Zoom calls all day and completing all my homework on my laptop, I thought it would be a good time to pick up reading again, if only to save my eyes from staring at a screen longer than I should.
I started with a series I already knew I loved — "Percy Jackson and the Olympians." I'm aware it's written for 11-year-olds, but those books are fantastic.
I was worried I had taken too long of a break, and it would be hard for me to get back into reading the way I used to.
But after I re-read "Percy Jackson," I didn't stop.
I got recommendations from friends (and TikTok) and bought a lot of books. I picked up "Circe" by Madeline Miller, "Daisy Jones and the Six" by Taylor Jenkins Reid, the "Shadow and Bone" series by Leigh Bardugo.
Since October, I've read 32 books. Reading quickly is the only talent I'll admit to having. I also started purchasing more books than ever before. Shopping for books on Amazon would have been easier and faster, but I really wanted to support a local bookstore.
I've always loved Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, but now it's my most frequent destination when I leave the house, which isn't often. Bookstores in general have been comfort spaces for me — places I could spend hours in.
When I go to Changing Hands, I grab a basket and hunt down the books I scribbled on a scratch piece of paper. By the end of my shopping time, the basket handles are making indentations in my skin and I've spent more money than I probably should have.
It's the best feeling when I get home and put my new books on my to-read shelf, or when I open it up at home for the first time.
Reading has been extremely therapeutic for me, especially now. It allows me to escape from time to time in a way that's not maladaptive. It's become a huge coping skill for me and something I rely on when my anxiety or OCD is particularly loud.
My favorite part of my day is going outside in the morning with my coffee to read on the swing, while my dog lays next to me. Or when I’ve finished my work for the day and I can make a cup of chamomile tea and read until I fall asleep.
As cheesy as it may sound, reading has been healing for me. It's allowed me to get back into a passion I genuinely enjoy and escape from reality when I need to. It's allowed me to return to myself.
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