Reading during a pandemic? There are stranger things.
But seriously, how can one possibly find the concentration to read—and then enjoy—reading a book for prolonged periods of time when the world outside often feels like it’s burning? How can you lose yourself in a story when your own problems are so glaringly present?
May I submit to you that one of the absolute joys of reading fiction is the ability to tap into your child-like creativity and lose yourself in a story? Similarly, non-fiction allows us to plunge deep into a new subject and learn, allowing us to emerge better off than we were before.
In my own struggle to take back reading for myself after months of drudgery reading books I was obligated to, here are five of my biggest takeaways on how to read (satisfyingly!) during times of undue stress:
Read what you want to read, not what you think you should be reading.
Adulthood complicates things. Rather than listen to our inner child and pick the title that excites us, we go with the latest NY Times bestseller list darling, or the latest read that everyone has been telling us “we just have to read.” If you’re like me, there’s the non-stop temptation to put your book-loving mind to use and choose a title directly related to work, and kill two birds with one stone by focusing on learning new industry trends or professional development. All of these intentions are good, but often what’s good is not what’s best.
In a time where you’re in desperate need to distract your mind, or get lost in thoughts that aren’t your own, it’s essential to listen to your wants and let them guide you into choosing your next read. It’s crucial to recognize that you aren’t reading for your others, you’re doing it for yourself, as a small act of pleasure and self-care in a time where you really need both. And don’t beat yourself up for abandoning a book that’s just not interesting to you. You gave it a fair shot and tried your best to get involved, but you just weren’t into it. Not every book will be for you, and that’s okay. There’s one out there for everyone—so get out and find your next read that energizes and excites you. So before you suffocate your desire to open up that dog-eared copy of Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time and reach for something “more educational and practical instead”, pause and give yourself a minute to evaluate what you really need. Take a breath and go with that instead. You’ll be glad you did.
Don’t beat yourself up on how long it takes to finish.
I can’t be the only one who’s looked at a forlorn volume on my bedside table with a teeny twinge of guilt. A book I thought would take me a week or two to finish has stretched into a month, and now I find myself with little and slowly fading enthusiasm to finish it. It’s been too long, the story’s now stale, and I’m finding it difficult to forgive myself for letting so much time slip by with each page, a reminder that now a book that I wanted to read is now a physical reminder of my present laziness, neglect, and inactivity.
Rather than guilt yourself and actively replay your frustrations with yourself, flip the narrative and stop listening to it. You’ve been busy, things have happened—a worldwide pandemic and vaccines to stop it have been launched—you can give yourself a pass for letting your reading fall to the wayside a bit. Put those feelings of failure and disappointment aside, and approach the book with fresh eyes, like this is the first time you’ve ever seen it. If you need a refresher, find the book description online or a chapter-by-chapter summary to get yourself quickly up to speed on what you already read. If you really want to—only if you really do!—you can re-read the chapters, although I wouldn’t recommend it because it can be dry and boring and suck the fun out of it, so I would encourage going with summaries or descriptions as a first step. Before you know it, you’ll be able to pick right off where you left it, and find yourself enjoying the story and diving right back in as if no time had passed. Put the negative feelings and guilt aside and embrace the book instead—there’s no judgment here. And if you need help prioritizing reading and making sure this doesn’t happen again, scroll down to the next section and read on.
Make time to read—and better yet, jealously guard it.
There will always—always!—be something more important than reading in the moment right before you decide to do it. Something always comes up. A text, a call, will happen right as you’re about to bundle over to your cozy corner with your latest volume. And of course, there’s the ever-present call of
Netflix/Hulu/Disney+/pick your poison around the corner. The fact is, unless you’re some hyper level reader that has figured out the answer to reading distractions (if so, please shoot me an email and share your secrets), reading will never just naturally happen to you (again, if it does, please let me know!).
Like with everything else, your reading time should be scheduled and on your mental and/or physical calendar with the rest of your daily tasks. I abide by the same work adage everyone and their mother repeats—if it’s not on your calendar, it’s not going to happen. Set a time, whether in the morning or evening, that works best for you, at a time where you’re ready to relax and unwind from the pressures of the day. Set the time—on a timer if you need to do other things after—and dig in. If you’re quarantining at home with others, let your family and friends know that you’ll disappear for a while to read, and you’d rather not be disturbed. After the first few instances, they’ll understand and get used to it, respecting your time for yourself. Limit notifications, and better yet, put your phone in another room to remove the temptation if that’s an issue. With this tip, you’ll never have to spend night drifting off to sleep—then waking, and kicking yourself—for not getting time to read.
Go one at a time.
I’m not sure about other book bloggers out there, but I cannot double fist when it comes to reading. I read one at a time, intentionally investing my mental and emotional energy on one story before moving on to the next. Similarly, I cannot hold myself to a numbered reading list with preselected titles and an order to reading them, even when I’ve created it for myself. A lax, compilation of the many books that have caught my eye? Yes, that I can do. But a regimented, black-and-white numbered list of the books I have ordained for myself that I must read—in that order? Nope, doesn’t work for me. I’m sure there’s many books you’ve seen that you want to read this upcoming winter (or summer, for our southern hemisphere friends). That’s fantastic, and I commend you for your proactiveness! However, may I caution you to not force yourself to be very strict and regimented in your reading?
Why, you ask? It takes the joy and spontaneity out of reading! Although you might have curated a
customized list of books you’ve identified with stories that thrill and excite you, it’s important to give yourself the freedom and space to approach the list with wonder, the way you might have when you were a kid. Out of the list you’ve created, lose or fixed, choose the title that appeals to you now rather than the “logical order” of the sequence. Try sticking to one title at a time, not trying to read two books at once. In a stressful time, you only have so much mental and emotional energy that isn’t spent trying to take care of everything else—invest it wisely in one story to truly enjoy and be present in it, without constantly darting your attention and energy between two or more. Every time I’ve tried to read multiple books at once, it’s never led to the meaningful or profound experience it could have been because I didn’t take the time to devote my focus to one story entirely. Eventually, you will make it down the list and complete everything—but doing it in a spontaneous, desire-centered way and choosing a title here and a title there from it will help you stay true to what you most want to read now, and what will ultimately give you the most joy. Even if it’s not a perfect cross-off list, this approach allows you to honor your desires and what you need right now while also helping you make progress on picks you really want to read. See? Simple. Two birds with one stone.
If you don’t feel like reading—don’t.
Everything in life has a time. If you don’t feel the desire to read right now, and the thought of cracking open another book after you just finished the last just doesn’t appeal—don’t do it. Ditch the guilt and the feelings of internal strife and accept how your mind and body are feeling right now, in this moment. If following a story through film or streaming services feels more appealing to you, do that. You won’t lose the will or desire to read, and it definitely hasn’t left you for good. You just need a break, to give yourself the space for what you need. You know what’s best for you because your body will tell you, and if instead of inspiring a feeling of lightness, excitement and levity the thought of reading makes you feel obligation, stiff and boredom, do something else for a little and let the desire come back to you when you’re ready. Forcing yourself to do something you just aren’t ready to do—especially in a time where you attention and focus is probably elsewhere as the world continues to hurt—isn’t a good idea. You’ll be ready again when you’re ready.
These are just a few of the biggest lessons I’ve learned since slowly habituating to life where daily rhythms, given expectations and predictability have all been thrown out the window. Hopefully in this time, reading can become a solace for you and give you respite and inspiration in this space and season of adaptability and adjustment.
On the bright side, at least with a book in tow, you won’t be subjected to hearing the word “unprecedented” thirty times a day.