Five Tips for How to Read Again (Even When the World is Falling Apart)
It took me three months into the COVID-19 quarantine to be able to open a book again. And even then, reading it was slow-going.
Many people I’ve talked to still can’t seem to focus for long enough to read a book; they read a page, then reread it, then put down the book in frustration. This behavior makes unfortunate sense with all the anxiety of a deadly virus, an upcoming election, and the various disruptions our lives have experienced. Didn’t reading used to be an act that brought solace? Books the barriers from the world’s woes? Stories, our mutual getaway? Yes, yes, and yes…and they can be again! Here are five tactics to get back aboard the book train:
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1. Read what you like
When the “Safer at Home” order came down and everything closed down, I had a pile of books I was working on. As is typical with my reading, it was a mix of styles and subjects, some totally new to me and some closer to old stand-bys. How many times did I look at that stack and then turn away shaking my head? With all that was going on, I couldn’t even wrap my mind around lifting works of philosophy, history, or most other non-fiction. A few months in, I would open a book, barely read a few pages and hurl it back into the pile. So what brought me back?
Well, I noticed that my wife had checked Lucy Knisley’s Relish out of the library before it closed. I’d read Knisley’s delightful culinary memoir before and used its chocolate chip cookie recipe on a regular basis! It’d been a while since I read it, so I tentatively picked it up and read the first few pages. Then a few more. The next day I was done. Wow, that was refreshing! Turns out, what helped in this case was that I knew exactly what to expect from Lucy Knisley’s work. This gave my brain the option to drop its guard. The point is, if you’re having trouble, start with something easy and comforting. Rereading a previous favorite fits the bill perfectly.
2. Stop following politics!
This one was originally going to be called “Stop Following Trump,” but it honestly doesn’t matter whether it’s Trump or any other politician. Political news is designed to keep you reacting all day long, the perfect recipe for a persistent state of emotional fatigue. So stop! Unfollow the feeds, hide the friends who only post political memes, and quit obsessively checking the news. It’s okay, the world won’t crumble because you aren’t in-the-know about what Trump tweeted a second ago. Really! If you need to stay in touch, check your favorite news site once a day (I said ONCE A DAY…Don’t act like I can’t see your hand creeping towards your phone). Go back to the good ‘ole days when you got one daily paper and read it with your coffee in the morning…Hey, that’s an idea, subscribe to one daily paper and read it with your coffee in the morning!
After a few days of reading political news like a civilized human being and not a headline-crazed fiend, you’ll find yourself feeling better overall — calmer, more observant, with stronger focus. These qualities will help you get back into reading, among other activities.
3. Read something quicker
After getting through Relish, I pulled James White’s Double Contact off my shelf. Double Contact is part of White’s Sector General series, a unique group of novels about an alien hospital. I’d read other Sector General books, but hadn’t gotten to that one yet. So why did I decide to do it at such an odd time? Easy, I was already familiar with the book’s general idea and characters (as with Relish above), and White’s writing is very plot-forward, which makes it a consummate page-turner. At that moment, my goal was to quickly get way into a story, not get mired in exposition, description, or character development. Double Contact is very fast-paced, which was the point! (To that end, Relish is a graphic novel, which also tend to move quickly)
Everyone has a different comfort level when it comes to pacing. For example, readers of fantasy tend to be used to leisurely-paced 700-page books, while romance readers can often rip-through stacks of paperbacks in a few days. Whatever you usually read, I suggest trying something a little quicker. And if you’re already reading James Patterson — try something shorter
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4. Set a time, make it a date!
There’s never going to randomly be the perfect time to cast everything aside and read. As it’s been doing for the past X number of months, your brain will find ways to sabotage your reading attempts — chores to do, distractions, reality shows on Netflix, or whatever else can come to mind, will enter at just that moment. So, let’s get ahead of that by planning an evening for you and that bookfriend:
- Start by putting two or three hours in your planner (or wherever you keep your schedule) for a Friday or Saturday night. You want to avoid school nights in case things get racy and you stay up past your bedtime.
- If you have kids, arrange for a babysitter or wait until they are asleep (for extreme cases, put your partner on baby duty and grab a hotel room). If you have roommates or partners, ask for some uninterrupted peace.
- Order take-out or prepare some food in advance. Get your drink of choice ready (or if it’s tea, make sure you’re stocked).
- Choose an inviting book.
- Shut off your phone. It’s just one evening. It’s fine, I promise.
- During the evening: Have a nice dinner (with or without the book) and treat the book like dessert (or a second dessert ;) ). Put on some music that complements it, turn down all the lights but those you need to read. And sit down in a cozy place with your book. Give yourself permission to just think about the book for a few minutes; what are your expectations for it? Why did you choose this one? How’s the cover?
- Read a few pages, and stop to think about them if you want to. There’s no expectation or pressure to read any amount. Your aim, if we can call it that, is to stay in the moment. Your mind might want to wander to the million things that you usually obsess about, but gently rein it in. Consider the weight of the book, how the lamp’s light hits it, the typography. Read a few more pages.
- To be honest, I have a toddler, so by this point in my book-date, my wife might walk in to find me asleep on the couch. So what? I had a nice evening, read a few pages, and got to sleep on time for a change!
5. Don’t read, relax
Here’s a counter-intuitive reading tip if you’re having trouble: Just don’t do it for a while. Reading is lovely, but unless you’re in publishing or a book reviewer it’s not a required activity, is it? You reading for entertainment and enlightenment — it’s a want, not a need. I know, I know, not reading is the problem we’re trying to solve here. But for me, when I was having trouble focusing, putting pressure on myself to read was not at all helpful. I knew I’d eventually get back to it and after I let myself stop worrying about when, life became a little easier.
So don’t read. Put that pile back on the shelf, return the library books, stash the e-reader. And let it be okay.
Instead, make time for self-care activities: Long walks, meditation, bubble baths (if you’re into that sort of thing), just listen to music (and do nothing else), write in a journal, watch the clouds go by, whatever you do to bring your mind and body into balance. Simply slow down for a while.
When it’s time to read again, you will do it.