Last week, I had the opportunity to get away for a couple days, and I gladly took up the offer. It wasn't so much on account of pandemic cabin fever. It was just a chance to carve out some time from the schedule to sit outside in a beautiful shady spot and do (almost) nothing.
With that almost-nothing time block, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: read a book. It had been so long...
Traveling to my getaway, I couldn't help but notice how many people engaged in nearly the opposite. They were reading, of course, but it was in the futile chase of the Bright Shiny Object, flipping from post to post on social media, or website to website in search of mere snatches of information.
Books, by contrast, offer the mind a place to grab hold and track a thought through the twists and turns of unfolding circumstances—never letting go until the turning of the last page and the closing of the cover.
My brain needed that workout. It's been spending hours juggling lists of godparents for multiple Irish-born babies, desperately sifting through data in the hopes of recognizing a pattern—any pattern. The persistence required for such follow-through may, for some researchers, be a native ability, but somehow my brain has lost such resilience. Having gotten flabby, it brightens after a decent workout. And books afford me that benefit.
Web surfing, on the other hand, gifts me with no such benefit, no matter how worthy the search or how doggedly I stick with the project. Shifting from one piecemeal thought to another may be helpful for some circumstances, but not for long-range thinking. I've got to constantly keep those mind muscles trim, or they eventually fail me.
I've found it doesn't matter, either, which book I am reading. Finding a useful genealogy guide is always a plus, but any book that engages the thought processes will yield that payoff. Having a wide range of interests seems to vary the exercise routine, as well. It's not necessarily the reading, per se—I've lately been reading a wide assortment of works including historical accounts, psychology studies, educational applications, health and nutrition reports—but the conceptual variety encourages mental flexibility, and sometimes sparks ideas which apply across disciplinary lines.
If you find yourself getting stuck in a genealogical rut with your latest brick wall, take a break and go read a book—any book. Give your mind a breather from the intractable research problem while letting it stretch. Put that mind through its paces while enjoying a fascinating book. Your research problem will undoubtedly still be there when you return to your work—but may shrink to more resolvable dimensions after your detour.