To Select a Relevant Book, I Don’t Just Need to Know About Books

I need to know myself

Parag Shah
7 min readDec 23, 2020
Photo by Kourosh Qaffari on Unsplash

To hand you a great book, I don’t just need to know about books; I need to know you. — Anne Bogel

Anne Bogel’s got a good point but a slightly tangential thought came to my mind and caught my attention: To pick up a relevant book, I don’t just need to know about books; I need to know myself.

This simple realization made to stop and think — how well do I know myself? Do I know exactly why I read the books I read or am I on auto-pilot when I select books?

I’ve been journaling for a long time so I was happy to open my journal and introspect into my reading habits. I’m glad I did this little exercise because it turned out to be a small but nice journey of self-discovery.

(Note: The book links in this article are affiliate links. If you make a purchase through them, it will help me earn a small amount — without any extra cost to you. Thank You!)

The very first book I remember enjoying as a little child was “Scuffy the Tugboat.” It was a book about a toy tugboat that was built to sail in the small world of kid’s bathtubs. But Scuffy had larger ambitions. It wanted to sail in the rivers and the seas. One day Scuffy’s wishes come true when somehow the current of a small stream that kids play in takes it to larger waters. An initially excited Scuffy soon meets massive vessels that appeared magnificent, arrogant, cold, scary, and completely indifferent to its existence. Scuffy also has a few narrow escapes with the larger boats. The toy tugboat, after a scary and disillusioning experience in the sea, finally has a happy reunion with the family who loved it, cared for it, and relished watching it sail in their bathtub. As a child, I loved the book because it was a beautiful story of warmth and belonging.

Soon after Scuffy, I found Amar Chitra Katha comics and was totally hooked to them for a few years. These comics ranged from ancient Indian mythology to spirituality, to biographies of famous people, as well as recent history. I did not just read them, I devoured them. I enjoyed ancient stories far more than contemporary ones and The Mahabharata was my favorite. I lost count of how many times I read that comic. I loved the theme of honor and justice. But it wasn’t just that. I enjoyed reading about ancient times.

I never really outgrew Amar Chitra Katha. In fact, I have been thinking of purchasing the entire volume of all their publications for some time and I might get it pretty soon. But, at that time, my love for those ancient stories gave way to a set of books that were very popular with young boys at that time. My reading interests progressed from Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” to “The Hardy Boys” to “Perry Mason”. When I entered college, “Perry Mason” gave way to “Sidney Sheldon,” “Jeffrey Archer,” and “Arthur Hailey.”

I’m not particularly proud of this phase because even though these were fun books, I read them because everyone around me was reading these books. I was not making conscious choices. In retrospect, I would have preferred to read some of the classics like “Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights,” “War and Peace,” and maybe even a deep dive into The Mahabharata.

Eventually, Jeffrey Archer and Arthur Hailey gave way to self-help books of which I read a lot but I don’t think they helped me much.

It was like being in the dark ages of my literary journey and unfortunately, I stayed there for a long time.

Finally, I saw the light when I picked up “The Fountainhead” from a roadside book vendor as an impulse purchase without knowing anything about the book. Somehow, the name sounded familiar and the introduction was interesting so I bought it. It was the first book that really made me sit back and think. To this day I am very grateful for that co-incidence because I don’t know how long it would have taken me to see the light had I continued on the literary path I was on.

After reading “The Fountainhead” thrice and “Atlas Shrugged” twice, the next few years were a shallow dive into the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, and Nietzsche. These were good books without a doubt but to be very honest they did not make a deep impact on me.

What did make a deep impact on me was a book that found its way to me, once again through a series of coincidences, when I was in bed for almost a year after grad school recovering from a severe episode of Crohn’s Disease. “The Autobiography of a Yogi” changed my life. I was mesmerized from the moment I started reading it and I remember staying up all night in my rather dilapidated health because it was impossible for me to put the book down. Just like “Fountainhead,” I read this book three times back to back. What followed were other books by Yogananda Paramhansa, Ramana Maharishi, Paul Brunton, Sri Aurobindo & The Mother, and other books about spirituality or spiritual aspirants. This time I was not on auto-pilot. I carefully selected each and every book I read. Even though I was in bed with an exhausting sickness, it was a beautiful time in my literary journey.

Crohn’s Disease eventually went into remission and I found myself in the world of software development with a master’s degree in Computer Science and a passion for programming. The next few years, with their crazy deadlines, gave me little time to read anything besides what I had to read in order to keep up with the latest and greatest in software development. Even though I say it grudgingly right now, back at that time I devoured content on software. I bear a grudge against those days because I wish I had not worked so hard and had found the time to read other things besides software after already burning the midnight oil in front of my laptop. I was once again bordering on the dark ages.

Fortunately, late working hours, constant deadlines, working on too many projects, and trying my hands at a failed startup of my own took their toll and resulted in an almost complete breakdown which reignited my spiritual thirst. I spend the next few years reading about spiritual practice. This time, I wanted to focus on ‘actual practice’ and not just the lives of seekers.

This is the time when I started serious meditation. I say serious because, how much ever I tried, I seriously failed to meditate. I tried, failed, tried, and failed again until I understood the reason. I realized that I was doing what was known as spiritual bypassing — trying to attain spiritual heights without addressing the darker human issues that lay hidden in the corners of my subconscious. There was a lot of unresolved emotional trauma that I was dealing with. I had serious self-worth issues, I realized that despite my interest in spirituality, deep down I despised myself. But I didn’t know why. I couldn’t figure out why I lacked self-worth, why I despised myself, why I was dealing with self-worth issues. I knew something was wrong but I could not figure out why and what to do about it.

Once again, I turned to books for answers. I read several books on healing, Reiki, trauma, and self-love. I was getting closer to the problem but, at the same time, I was overwhelmed. I felt like I was dealing with a mountain of problems but with just enough energy and resources to move a small stone.

They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. True, but honestly when you have to move a mountain and all you can do is move a few stones, it is very discouraging to still see the mountain standing after an exhausting day of the best work you can put in.

That was my journey till December 31, 2019. Everything changed in 2020.

The year started with a minor surgery followed by the pandemic followed by the hospitalization of someone in my family followed by a decision to leave my two-decade-long career in software development. In the midst of all this, I also decided to start reading for pleasure like I used to. Instead of plowing ahead on an unsurmountable mountain of emotional healing, I decided to just love myself, care for myself, follow my heart, and once again start reading books that gave me joy — an emotion I was desperately in need of. I revisited all the books that had given me joy right from childhood to my adult years, starting with “Scuffy the Tugboat.”

That decision, I feel, made a huge difference. When I started reading for joy, I found that a lot of my trauma was also being healed in the process. That’s when I came across the concept of bibliotherapy — which literally means healing with books. I learned more about it. Bibliotherapy made a lot of sense to me and I also understood why fiction was helping me heal my emotional trauma.

I still read books to understand how to heal unresolved trauma but I also read a lot of books that give me joy. Along with these, I also read fiction books where the protagonist struggles with issues similar to mine. I feel this combination works really well. It gives me more healing and less fatigue, not to mention reclaiming the joy of reading a good story.

I just finished reading “The Bridges of Madison County” — my first romance novel — and Anne Bogel’s wonderful book “I’d Rather Be READING”. I don’t know which book I’ll read next. I’ve got a few to select from but whatever I choose, now I know that I’ll make a conscious choice.