I didn’t finish college and I have no regrets. But because I am a total nerd, there is one thing I often miss: that first look at a fresh, crisp syllabus. I could not get enough syllabi in college. So much possibility! So many books, all neatly organized into themed lists, just waiting for me to track them down and discover their secrets! It turned out that college lectures weren’t the best way for my brain to receive information. But I still love a good syllabus. Happily, since I’m completely in charge of my own lifelong continuing education, I don’t have to rely on institutions or professors to create syllabi for subjects I’m interested in. I can make my own.
I love themed reading. My obsession with syllabi back in college should have been a tipoff, but I discovered this by accident more recently. I found myself reading books, across different genres, about the same subject. I’d pick up a memoir about something, and the next week I’d be drawn to a historical novel with similar themes. Soon I started doing it on purpose. I love the richness and depth of themed reading. I love reading about something from different perspectives, sometimes contradicting ones. One of the reasons college didn’t work for me (among many) was that I like to learn in lots of different ways. Sometimes a novel clicks with me in a way a book of nonfiction doesn’t. Sometimes a poem illuminates an idea I’ve been struggling to understand. I like variety.
So I’ve started designing my own syllabi. It’s even better than it was back in college, because I get to pick the topic and the reading materials. I’ve done a few at-home mini reading intensives this year, and you can, too. Designing them is half the fun. Here’s the process I’ve adopted for creating my own satisfying reading syllabi.
Pick a Topic
Obviously, your mini reading intensive can be about any topic you’re interested in. It doesn’t have to be serious. Maybe you want to learn more about the history of textiles. Maybe you want to read about aliens. The important thing is to make sure it’s not too broad, but not too narrow, either You want a subject you’ll be able to find plenty of books about, but you don’t want to be overwhelmed by choice. Black American history, for example, is way too broad — it encompasses so much.
Starting with a big overarching subject is a great; now you have to hone in on something more specific. Why are you drawn to Black American history? Are you interested in a particular time period, place, movement, theme? Maybe you want to read about the Harlem Renaissance (still extremely broad, but you can totally make yourself an introductory syllabus about it). Maybe you’re interested the history of Black women in science. Or queer Black activism. Or Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Race Massacre. You get the idea.
Of course, there is no hard and fast rule about this. For this article, I’m going to use an example of a mini reading intensive I did this year: chronic illness. Chronic illness is definitely a broad topic. But it’s something that I don’t know a lot about. I’ve been focusing on reading books by disabled authors this year, and chronic illness is one piece of that. I wanted to start broad because I have so much to learn, and I didn’t want to limit my options.
Set Your Goals
Yay, you’ve picked out a topic! Now it’s time to set goals (if you’re into that). Goals motivate and inspire me, but if they stress you out, don’t bother. This isn’t a college course. This is your reading intensive, designed by you. You get to make the rules.
For my chronic illness mini reading intensive, I set a very basic goal: to read more books by chronically authors about (or influenced by) their own experiences. I’d noticed in 2020 that I wasn’t reading a lot of books disabled and chronically ill authors and I wanted to change that.
You can make your goals as simple or as complicated as you want. Maybe your goal is to feel confident teaching someone else about your topic of choice. Maybe you want to complete your reading intensive in a certain time period, or you want to read a certain number of books. It’s up to you!
Determine How You’ll Track Your Progress
I added a tab to my reading spreadsheet so that I could keep track of each book I read that was part of my chronic illness reading intensive. You could keep track of the books you read in a spreadsheet like this. Or you could keep a reading journal where you note the books you read and take notes. Maybe you want to document the whole process on social media — you could take a picture and post a review when you finish each book. You could write out the syllabus with your list of books, leaving space to note when you finished them and what you thought.
Pick Your Books
Now we get to the truly fun part: picking out your books! The whole point of doing a reading intensive like this is to explore the topic from lots of different angles. I like to make sure I have both fiction and nonfiction on the list, and that the fiction books include lots of genres. I also look at the authors of the books and the identities and experiences represented. If all the books on your list are written by white authors, you’re going to want to rework it. Your syllabus should be as diverse as possible in terms of race, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, etc. The best part of this whole experience is when the books start talking to each other — arguing, agreeing, riffing off each other, contradicting each other. If they’re all approaching the topic from the same lens, that’s not going to happen.
For my chronic illness mini reading intensive, I picked ten books: four novels and six works of nonfiction. I included authors of different genders, sexualities, and ages, from different countries, and with different illnesses. Obviously, it’s not a perfect list — it’s only ten books! The idea isn’t to try to come up with a list that represents every identity and every genre of book. That’s impossible. The idea is to pick books that will bring different things to the conversation. A mini reading intensive is only a starting place, after all. I’m not going to stop reading books by chronically ill authors now that I’ve read these ten. Just the opposite: I can’t wait to read more.
To give you an idea of how creative you can be with your book choices, here are the ten books I read. I started with Get A Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert, a romance about a Black woman with fibromyalgia. It’s hilarious and heartwarming and an utter delight. I read the YA fantasy novel Spellhacker by nonbinary writer M.K. England and the sci-fi novel Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi, both of which explore chronic illness through a speculative lens. And then I read Please Read This Leaflet Carefully, a gorgeous contemporary novel by Norwegian writer Karen Havelin, which follows a chronically ill Norwegian immigrant as she deals with relationships, work, motherhood, and more.
For nonfiction, I read Knot Body, a collection of essays, letters, and poetry about gender, illness, disability, trans identity, queerness, and more by Arab Canadian poe tEli Tareq El Bechelany-Lynch. I read The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, a beautiful memoir about the time she spent watching a snail while sick in bed. It’s a memoir that also include science and nature writing and history. A Two-Spirit Journey by Ma-Nee Chacaby, a lesbian Ojibwa-Cree writer and activist, is a memoir that doesn’t focus on chronic illness, though it’s certainly a part of Chacaby’s story. That’s one of the reasons I picked it.
What Doesn’t Kill You by Tessa Miller is a blend of memoir, practical research, and practical advice for chronically ill people. Miller tells her story with honesty and vulnerability, but she also addresses health care inequality, and how her own biases and privileges have affected her experiences. I wanted to include an essay collection, so I chose Between Certain Death and a Possible Future edited by Matilda Bernstein Sycamore, which is about growing up during the AIDS epidemic. Finally, I read a graphic memoir, Kimiko Does Cancer by Kimiko Tobimatsu and Keet Geniza. Tobimatsu writes about her cancer diagnosis and treatment as well as her life post-treatment, and explores what’s like being a young, queer biracial person who is sick.
I put a lot of thought into picking these ten books, but I could have easily picked ten different ones and come up with an equally great syllabus. That’s part of what makes this project so fun — I learned a ton while putting together the list, and added so many additional books to my TBR.
Collect Any Additional Reading Materials and/or Other Media
There’s no reason to limit yourself to books! Do you enjoy podcasts? Longform journalism? Reading personal essays online? Music? You can include any and all of these things in your syllabus. Pick out a few podcast episodes you’ve been meaning to listen to forever. Download that new album that somehow relates to your topic (I’m sure you can make a case for it.) Browse around online and pick out some shorter pieces to read in between the longer books. If you’re on social media, poke around and find some people to follow who are experts in your topic, or have firsthand experience. The possibilities are endless!
You’ve chosen your topic and set your goals. You’ve geeked out on research and made your booklist. All that’s left to do is read. My chronic illness reading intensive has been going on all year. I didn’t read those ten books all in a row; I read them over many months. There’s no right way to do a mini reading intensive. You could pick three books and read them in a week, or a month. You could pick 15 and read them over a year (or two!) Thinking about books this way has enriched my reading life in so many ways. I’m constantly coming up with my own syllabi now. Even when I don’t follow through and complete every book on the list, it’s a way to challenge myself and to get excited about topics that sometimes feel overwhelming. If it intrigues you at all, I hope you’ll give yourself permission to read this way, too.
Once you finish your reading intensive, maybe you’d also enjoy doing a reading audit.