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As a child, I was a voracious reader. I made weekly trips to the library, checked out as many books I could, and consumed them like a junkie. My fifth-grade teacher worried whenever I stayed indoors for recess, nose buried in one of Judy Blume’s masterpieces, and didn’t join the other kids out on the playground. I was confused: how could being a bookworm be a negative? I ignored her concerns and kept reading. My habit continued through adulthood. I read on subways and airplanes and always packed a half-dozen novels whenever I went on vacation. I even perfected balancing a book while nursing my children.
The intensity of my reading varied over the years, depending on whether I was working on my own manuscripts. I never wanted to be unintentionally influenced by someone else’s work—particularly if it was in a similar genre—and would take self-imposed reading breaks. These breaks stretched on and on and when I finally had the time and space to pick up a book again, I had difficulty getting into it. Coupled with the prevalence of smartphones, with their easy access to articles, blogs, and social media, and the allure of high-quality TV-series, my reading stalled. Quite simply, my attention span couldn’t handle a full-length novel. Scrolling rather than deep reading had become my default form of consumption. I’d start something and then give up if it didn’t catch my interest in the first twenty or thirty pages. This was highly unusual for me. As a writer and avid reader, I know all too well styles differ. Many novels are a slow burn and it can take several chapters for a story to reveal itself.
I still purchased books but my lack of commitment to actually read them symbolized my descent into literary No Man’s Land. How could I call myself a writer, if I had developed such a complicated relationship with reading? It’s been well-documented that reading is good for our intellect and mental well-being. It’s an active process, requiring us to employ several different parts of the brain at the same time, unlike television which is typically consumed in a passive manner. Developing a reading habit increases our vocabulary, improves our spelling, expands our knowledge, and reduces the risk of memory loss. We become smarter, more engaged individuals by reading. Reading is a proven stress reducer. It demands we slow down and escape into a quiet space internally, blocking the influence of fast-paced stimuli like the noise and images from buzzing screens. Reading also exposes us to a variety of experiences and broadens our perspectives. It nurtures our imagination, creativity, and sense of empathy.
However, with two children and a laundry list of responsibilities, my patience to pick up a book and stick with it was tested. Things culminated a couple of years ago when I realized I had only read a handful of books over a twelve-month period. What had happened to Book Junkie Jenn? The young girl whose idea of bliss was escaping into imaginary worlds and reading 2-4 books a week? As a writer, I’d certainly experienced writer’s block. But reader’s block? That was sacrilege! Plus, my vocation would surely go out of business if more people developed this condition. Turns out I wasn’t alone. Other writers have also revealed they’ve experienced this phenomenon. British author Lisa Jewell (whose thrillers I’ve been devouring of late) confessed to a reading block in an Instagram post. I felt her pain! But all is not lost. Here are five of my tips to rescue you from this ailment:
- Start with less challenging books. We all have fantasies of finishing War and Peace, but unless you’re a student or stranded on a deserted island with no interruptions, it may be difficult to get through 1,225 pages in the real world of jobs, kids, and mental fatigue. Sometimes in order to reconnect with reading, one has to choose something on the menu that’s more easily digested. Read whatever interests you. I’m not a book snob. Pay no attention to whether it’s considered high or low brow. As long as you’re reading and want to keep turning the pages, you’ve already scored a victory.
- Read a book in a different format. The growing popularity of audiobooks is proof that the reading audience is hungry for a good story but in a different medium. In our busy world, we don’t always have the luxury to hunker down with a physical book. Audiobooks allow us to listen to novels–often narrated by the authors themselves or by award-winning voices–while we exercise, commute, or do chores. I don’t think it diminishes the experience since one must still concentrate on the words and mood being conveyed. Our imagination must still paint a picture of the story. I’ve also become a big fan of e-books for their user-friendliness and lower price point. I downloaded the Kindle app on my smartphone last year and wonder why it had taken me so long. Instead of reading blogs or articles, I can now swipe through an e-book as I stand in line or sit in my car waiting for my son at soccer practice. Downloading e-books assures that I will always have reading material close at hand.
- Mix it up. If you’re experiencing reading fatigue, it may be because you’re reading books that are too similar to each other, which may also explain why you no longer feel that sense of wonder and satisfaction. Instead of taking a reading break, try something in a different genre. For example, I used to only read fiction, but in recent years, I’ve added more non-fiction and memoirs to my repertoire and many of those narratives have left a more powerful impression on me.
- Schedule time for reading just as you would pencil in time for working out or coffee with a friend. Better yet, have a weekly date with a book, preferably outside of your house. It goes without saying that a reading ritual necessitates a tech-timeout. Immerse yourself in the simple pleasure of reading; just you and the book.
- Binge read a book like you would a Netflix series says novelist Ben Dolnick. Get into the zone, the same way you did for The Crown, Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards. Clear your calendar, settle in on your couch, and dig in. If you approach reading as entertainment rather than a high-brow burden, I promise you will enjoy it as much as the latest program on Netflix!
What are some of your tips for beating the reader’s block blues?