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Colleenby Colleen Wainwright | The Communicatrix

Take your brain to the gym.

If all you’re reading is this column and other “actor-specific” publications, you’re already falling behind.

In your rush to drink in the season’s new TV lineup and “serious” film releases, you may have put aside one of your most important media-consumption duties: reading.

After all, everyone from Warren Buffett to the NEA says that the best investment you can make is in yourself, and one of the best rates of return you’ll find comes with reading lots of books. Reading the right kinds of books as many as you can, as thoughtfully as you can expands both your knowledge base and your critical thinking abilities, which will help you make smarter decisions faster and with more confidence. Reading regularly will even improve your memory, which is useful when your job requires you to memorize lots and lots of dialogue.

In an effort to pimp reading, I’ve written before about great acting books to read as well as great “civilian” books, but this year, I took some of my own medicine and committed to reading 52 books in 2010; I fulfilled my goal early (in August!), in no small part because reading is one of those super-fun activities that makes you want to do even more of it once you get cracking. Also, when you read a lot of books, you get to read a lot more GOOD books.

Here is a handful of really, really worthwhile books I’ve read this year to start you off:

The Art of Non-Conformity, by Chris Guillebeau. There’s a lot of terrific information about forging a life for yourself as an iconoclast on his blog, but Chris Guillebeau’s new book is a great immersion experience. It distills the tenets of unconventional living (read: your life as an actor) down to their essence, and provides a simple-to-follow logic and plan. Full disclosure: I’m a good friend of Chris’s, but I was a fan of his work well before I met him. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I made an effort to meet him. There’s a lesson in there for anyone who wants to be sought-after: be absolutely amazing at what you do, and people will seek you out instead of you having to chase them. (You can read my full review here.)

Improv Wisdom, by Patricia Ryan Madsen. As an actor, you’re already halfway home to understanding the value of applying improv principles to everyday life. But this small, readable book will bring you the rest of the way there, and you’ll have a great time and be uplifted in the process. Essential to helping you achieve more synergy between everyday life and work. (You can read my full review here.)

Walking on Water, by Derrick Jensen. A book on the woefully inadequate methods of modern education might seem like a dull read, but this is anything but. Jensen is a master storyteller funny, smart and often spicy and the book will wake you up to the myriad ways you’re probably asleep right now—ways that keep you from taking in the right information, making smart decisions and living the hell out of your life. (You can read my full review here.)

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. A collection of short stories, each describing a particular character in a small, New England town, which coalesces to provide a nuanced and compelling portrait of the title character, a strong-willed, sour-ish older woman who has an extraordinary breakthrough in self-knowledge at the end. Tons of juicy stuff there for actors to sink their teeth into, and really, really readable. (You can read my full review here.)

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. I haven’t reviewed it yet, but this is one of the finest, funniest, sharpest and well-written novels I’ve read in years. It’s also a terrific piece of fiction for actors to read because it’s filled to the gills with “unlikeable” (and, in some cases, contemptible) characters whom you really, really root for. It’s long (and, therefore, good to read on a Kindle!), but in the good way you don’t want it to end.

The full list of books I’ve read this year (including links to reviews) is here; or you can go to this page and seek out books by category.

Happy reading, smart actor!

*Although I also think that money-wise, you’d do well to read this short, provocative and smart post by Mark Cuban on where to put your money in weird financial times like these.

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BOOK(s) OF THE MONTH: With multiple demands on your attention (not to mention the stress of family gatherings, crowded stores, and Mass Holiday Fever), this time of the year can be tricky for reading. My suggestion is not to stop, but to adapt: enjoy a collection of engrossing (no pun intended!) interviews with actors and other artists; pick up a  book of short stories; or re-read an old inspiring or engrossing favorite you haven’t picked up in a while. Just don’t give up—reading makes you smarter and keeps you saner!

Want more ideas? Sign up for my (free) newsletter! Almost every month I send out useful (and specific, and nice) information about how to promote yourself without being a tool, and connect with people in a way that makes them love you. It’s not about acting explicitly, but since you’re a smart actor, that shouldn’t scare you.

Colleen Wainwright is a writerspeaker-layabout who started calling herself “the communicatrix” when she hit three hyphens. She spent a decade writing commercials and another decade acting in them for cash money. Now she uses her powers for good instead of evil by helping creatives learn how to strut their stuff in a way that makes the world fall madly in love with them.