How to Read a Book When You Can’t Breathe Through Your Nose

By: Betty Noe

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Falling into bed with a good book always sounds like the perfect solution whenever I’ve acquired the latest illness that is in vogue among my friends. Often, this form of self-care is better than the reality for me. When I have a sinus headache and I’m coughing up a lung, I find that I don’t have the patience to focus my eyes on the words on a page. A simple solution would be to take a break from the literary world and watch reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air while I oscillate between sleeping and huffing Vicks VapoRub. But as a bibliophile with very little time to read for pleasure (or to read at all) I like to take advantage of my free time to experience all of the authors that I hold dear—no matter how terrible I feel. Over the years–through mono, multiple cases of pneumonia, and quite possibly every strain of cold in existence–I have developed the perfect strategy for keeping myself reading when dealing with the newest attack on my health. And now, I am ready to share my wisdom with book-lovers everywhere.

Step 1: Choosing the Book

There is an art to what I affectionately call “Sick Lit,” that starts with choosing the perfect book. The key is to strike fast like a snake, which, for someone who moves at a human pace, means meeting your bookshelf prepared. The trick is to pick a book you really love, and make sure it’s one that you practically know by heart. This isn’t the time to finally break out your dusty, unread copy of War and Peace. This isn’t even the time to try out the newest Nicholas Sparks novel. Instead, choose a book with a binding that looks ready to quit, a few ripped pages, and maybe even a couple of coffee stains. My personal favorites are the classics of my childhood: books that my mom used to read to me, like The Secret Garden or Anne of Green Gables; or my father’s old, beat up copy of The Silence of the Lambs. The nostalgia for these books act like homemade chicken noodle soup when I’m still aching from a head cold.

No matter what your literary taste, whether you love A. A. Milne or Stephen King, remember to choose a book that feels at home in your hands. Comfort books should be like macaroni and cheese or The Golden Girls — a familiar friend to get you through the hard times.

Step 2: Nesting

I find that nesting is a vital part of any reading experience, but it is absolutely necessary if you are reading to cure a cold. Nesting should always involve as many pillows and blankets as you own and a drink to match the book, like a crisp, chilled glass of white wine while you’re reading 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. However, a cold or flu will complicate the nesting process. When choosing the right drink, make sure to pick something packed with antioxidants, like green tea or cranberry juice. On top of the drinks, it’s always good to have some over-the-counter cold and flu remedies within arm’s reach. I like to keep several medications nearby at all times: ibuprofen for little aches and pains, acetaminophen to calm a fever, and naproxen to nip any headache in the butt. Of course, tissues, nasal decongestant strips, anything mentholated, and a humidifier for the dry months are all paramount. I’ll use anything to keep my sinuses open because if I can’t breathe, I can’t read.

Step 3: Reading the Book

It seems ridiculous to include reading as a step. After all, it should arguably only require basic literacy. However, reading suddenly becomes more painstaking than ever when your brain is foggy from the flu. As long as you followed the first step, this one isn’t really so hard. I know some purists and professors who would call this heresy, but the key to reading when you’re still sick is to keep yourself from really concentrating on the book. Let your mind wander for a few paragraphs if you feel the need to rest. Skip that chapter or section of the piece that you find boring. You shouldn’t be taking this time in order to look for new dimension in that character that you already hate. It’s not skimming, it’s just selective reading — and it’s the only way to read when you’re feeling under the weather.

In a day or two, you’ll be picking up extra shifts at work and heading back to all of your adult responsibilities, so take this time to fall asleep in a nest of blankets with a book in your hands. I think that it’s valid to file your sick-day reading experience under “self-care”, so curl up in a ball, grab your steaming cup of tea, and enjoy!


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