What To Read When You’re Sick

'The Convalescent' by Gwen John (1924)
‘The Convalescent’ by Gwen John (1924)

My apologies for the scarcity of blog posts recently. I do have an excuse – I’ve been sick. This has been No Fun. On the positive side, after months of dragging myself around, feeling pathetic and useless, it was some sort of relief to hear my doctor say, “You are not being lazy – you are seriously ill and need to be in hospital right now, having lots of blood transfusions.”1 Anyway, all of this has left me pondering what to read when you’re sick.

Of course, when you’re really, really sick, you can’t read anything at all. In fact, this could be a diagnostic test for certain people (the sort of people who read blogs about books, for instance). Doctors could ask, “Have you had difficulties reading more than a few pages of a book, even when you usually like that author?” alongside questions such as “Do you get breathless walking more than a few steps?” and “Do you feel faint when you stand up?”

However, assuming you’re at a stage where you can read, what should you read? Here are my suggestions:

1. Choose books that conserve your energy

You don’t want to be reading anything that makes your heart pound in fear, causes you to gasp with laughter, or gives you nightmares. You’re trying to give your body a rest. For this reason, main characters who are endearing may be a better choice than characters who are so annoying that they tempt you to hurl the book across the room. Novels with convoluted plots, non-fiction containing complex information and genres you don’t usually read may also be too much for your tired brain right now. You’re looking for something predictable and comforting, yet interesting enough to distract you, and this really depends on your personal tastes. I found Anne of Green Gables, which I’d never read before, worked well for me. Anne is good without being sickly-sweet, and her adventures were fun, without containing any nasty shocks. The book was amusing without being laugh-out-loud and Anne’s feisty approach to life was inspiring – perhaps I, too, would soon have the energy to be able to break a slate over the head of anyone who annoyed me.2

The problem is that you don’t really know what a book will be like till you’ve read it, so old favourites are often a good choice. I grabbed Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe off my bookshelf just before I rushed off to hospital and this turned out to be an excellent decision. I could put the book down if I needed a little sleep, then resume reading without forgetting who the characters were or what they were supposed to be doing. (This reminds me of another Anne Tyler character, Macon in The Accidental Tourist, who never boards a plane without his copy of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, which he describes as “plotless . . . but invariably interesting”. I was pleased to discover recently it is an actual novel, so maybe I should hunt down a copy.)

2. Avoid books about illness, medicine, hospitals, death, etc

You don’t want to be reading about all that when you’re sick. So don’t, for example, choose Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper for your sickbed reading because a) it’s about a teenager dying of leukaemia and contains detailed descriptions of medical procedures, and b) it’s full of corny dialogue, clunky metaphors and implausible plot developments, with a conclusion that will make you want to throw the book across the room.

3. Magazines are good, newspapers less so

There’s a reason hospital shops stock a large selection of magazines. A magazine article is often just the right length to suit your concentration span and there are lots of colourful pictures to gape at. I don’t know who most of the celebrities in magazines are, so I prefer ‘lifestyle’ magazines and the more removed from my current life, the better. There’s something very soothing about sitting in a hospital bed, reading about the difficulties someone had while renovating their charming centuries-old farmhouse in Provence. Newspapers are less suitable, because the pages get loose and smear ink on your sheets and they’re full of BAD NEWS.3

4. Paperbacks or large-print hardcovers?

Large-print books are handy if your vision is blurred due to illness or your medication, or if you just can’t get out of bed to put in your contact lenses. Hardcovers are also good at sitting up and staying open by themselves on your bed tray. They are heavy, though, so sometimes paperbacks are easier to manage. An e-reader with adjustable font size would probably work well, but a) I don’t have one, and b) you can’t use personal electronic devices in some medical settings.

5. What about audiobooks?

In theory, audiobooks should be a great way to read when you’re sick. Choose an appropriate book, plug in your earphones and relax against your pillows as a professional actor brings the words to life! However, I find that audiobooks require more concentration than print books do. If I get lost, I can’t just flip back a few pages to figure out the timeline or remind myself of the name of a minor character. There’s also the issue of not being able to use electronic devices in some medical settings. What sick people really need is an actual live person to sit by their bed and read aloud to them on demand. The reader can stop when the patient falls asleep and then answer questions about previous events in the book once the patient wakes up again, and can also fluff up pillows, fetch iced lemon drinks, adjust window coverings according to time of day, etc. Unfortunately, this is not an option for most sick people.

Um . . . that’s all I’ve got. Reading recommendations welcome.

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  1. I try not to use this blog to proselytise about anything other than books, but I’m feeling very grateful to the blood donors of Australia at the moment, so . . . If you’re medically capable and are okay with needles, maybe consider donating blood this year? I used to be a regular blood donor, back when I was young and healthy (obviously, they wouldn’t want my blood now, especially as most of it isn’t mine). Giving blood doesn’t take much time, doesn’t hurt much, and could save someone’s life. Thanks! Okay, back to books now.
  2. Metaphorically speaking, of course. I wonder what a modern-day Anne would do to an annoying classmate? Wallop him with an iPad?
  3. Especially at the moment, if you are an Australian.

8 thoughts on “What To Read When You’re Sick”

  1. Get well soon! I recommend Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, although parts of it are woozy-making. And something else that was long and wild-prosey was TC BOyle’s The Women …

    1. Thanks, Simmone! The Goldfinch sounds so interesting and I loved her first novel, although I was less impressed by The Little Friend. Hmm, I will investigate The Women . . .

  2. I hope you get well soon, it’s miserable being ill and not able to do things you want to do.

    My recommendations for books when not feeling great: any of Eva Ibbotsen’s historical romances (though not The Morning Gift which has a completely ridiculous plot in the last quarter, thanks to the two main characters not sorting out a misunderstanding that should have taken five minutes…); or A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer. Alternatively, something you’ve read several times before and find familiar and enjoyable.

    (PS on donating blood, I really would… but they think I might have mad cow disease and so I can’t. And anyway when I tried in the UK, they said they couldn’t fit the needle in my vein. But I might have another go at persuading my cousin, who doesn’t have that excuse though he tries to claim he does…)

    1. Thanks, Kitty! Yes, I think Eva Ibbotson or Georgette Heyer might work well. I’m currently reading Lucia in London, the second of E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books, and it’s perfect for my current frame of mind – light and amusing and set in my favourite historical period, too.

      Yes, there are lots of restrictions on blood donors, although I can understand why they have them, when some diseases can’t be easily detected in blood tests.

  3. Hope you get well soon! I think short stories or poems or essays can be good things to read while ill – these can fully engage your brain in short stretches. The other approach is to read crime fiction and just go with that narrative drive! Audiobooks are probably the best – I remember really enjoying a lot of Raymond Chandler in this way.

    1. Thanks, Ian. That’s a good idea about short stories and essays. Hmm, not sure about Raymond Chandler, though! Might be a bit too gory for me just at the moment . . .

  4. I’m sorry to hear you haven’t been well, I know all too well what it’s like! I hope you feel better soon. I wish I could donate blood myself, but similarly to you, my blood is the last they’d want. It’s funny how when I was healthy I was too afraid of needles to donate, and now that I’ve been ill I’m very used to needles & have a general “yes just jab it in” approach to it all.

    I’m usually in the too-ill-to-read (or really, just tired) camp, but my old to-reread-in-the-bath favourite, I Capture the Castle, has been a constant companion, and I’ve been trundling my way through Nancy Mitford’s works and Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Fisher books, too. Each delightful and slightly imperfect in a their own charming ways.

    (And oh, I feel you on the Australian news front…! I’ve taken to ignoring it all for days on end and then catching up on the important stuff as I was getting myself into a bad mood every single day with it all.)

    1. Thanks, Emily, and my commiserations about your own illness. I don’t remember having read any of the Miss Fisher books, so perhaps I should give them a try? I have another hospital visit coming up this week and I think I’ll take the Lucia and Mapp omnibus I borrowed from the library – those books are so light and entertaining, they’re a great sickbed diversion.

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