It turns out I’m not the only one having trouble reading lately. The struggles to get through a book seem pervasive as so many of us shelter in place–even for hardcore bookworms.
READERS HAVING TROUBLE READING
With all the holes in my calendar during the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought I’d be ripping through my library. Instead I find it hard to concentrate. So last month I asked if this sounded familiar.
It certainly did with most of my Facebook friends. Many reported having trouble reading as well. Most–many of them serious readers and some of them professional writers themselves–confirmed that they are having trouble concentrating on books these days.
I have yet to read an entire book during this pandemic
To my friend Nancy, having so much time to read ironically makes reading less precious, and less desirable. “I’ve decided that I’m restless reading because it’s one of my limited choices of activities,” she noted. “It’s something I’m settling for rather than savoring.”
My friend Lisa noted that she can’t read during the day but still finds that reading is the only way she can get herself to sleep at night. She reads in the dark with her Kindle on lowest light.
“I have yet to read an entire book during this pandemic,” said my college classmate Jane, who thinks her ability to read and focus has vanished. Instead she has been watching foreign and indie films, and binge-watching PBS and foreign television series. She cannot even get through her stack of New Yorkers.
DO UNCERTAINTY AND ANXIETY MAKE READING HARDER?
Many people observed that stress and anxiety made concentrating difficult. Focusing on a book “feels incompatible with the enormous anxiety and distress of our current dystopian world,” Jane says.
Another friend (also named Jane) has a theory about this: books contain problems. “I don’t want to hear about any more problems.”
I think she’s on to something. Several people noted that simple, meditative, and useful activities–like making face masks or gardening–ae more compelling right now than reading, or even listening to audiobooks. Others, myself included, are often distracted by the need to listen to the news, or connect with others on the phone or Internet.
“High stress times are not friends to me and my books.”
“At first, I could not concentrate and started listening to books while doing work outside and that kind of got me back in the mood,” my friend Steffani said. “Then I will binge a book and do nothing else and then back to not being able to concentrate. Weird times.”
Stefffani also recalled that when she was recovering at home for about a year, she couldn’t concentrate enough to read any book. “High stress times are not friends to me and my books.”
Anxiety and uncertainty do appear to make it difficult for the brain to focus on anything outside the immediate environment , says neuroscientist Oliver J. Robinson in a recent Vox article . Anxiety seems to disrupt short-term memory as well. Then, too, there’s a need to protect yourself, and control things–and here published books don’t help reduce feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty..
You might think people would seek distraction, but distraction is dangerous when things feel out of control. When we’re anxious, we crave information that might help protect or console us. And we may feel more likely to do that by turning on the news or searching the Internet than by immersing ourselves in a fictional world–or reading about a different time and place.
A FEW HOLDOUTS
There are exceptions. As I noted last month, my 88-year-mother, is going gangbusters reading library books on her smart phone. She has told me repeatedly that with the library closed, this system is saving her. And she just recommend a new book to me: Deirdre Bair’s Parisian Lives.
Several other friends, including an English teacher friend, reported reading more than ever.
My friend Margo sounds like my mom: “Reading is what keeps me occupied these days,” she says. “I panic about running out of reading, with the library closed! I think I have enough to keep me reading until the library opens,…and of course I can borrow from friends, so I’ll survive!”
She sounds like my mom.
I panic about running out of reading, with the library closed!
On the other hand, Margo admits to reading “nothing with redeeming social importance, “just light, entertaining stuff.” The same is true for my high school classmate Amy. She reads a lot, but only “science fantasy brain fluff,” something she also found herself doing after her husband died.
“I didn’t want heavy reading,” she said, “so I turned to this type of thing. Light reading, more like mind candy.”
Maybe it’s the less anxious types who are reading. My mother certainly fits in that category.
All in all, though, having lots of free time does not seem to be a formula for immersing yourself in the world of a book. Either does having a legitimate desire to escape reality. Perhaps we need to be able to let down our guard a bit more to do so. Perhaps now we just feel too vulnerable. Whatever the explanation, it’s clear that for many of us pandemic and reading don’t mix.