When Reading is Hard

I self-identify as a reader and I have since a young age. I didn’t learn to read until first grade–I’m a first-born child and it never occurred to my parents to teach me at home. That’s what school is for, right? So while a lot of my Big Reader friends learned as toddlers or in pre-school or kindergarten, I didn’t learn to read until my first grade teacher started our Learning to Read unit. Once I learned, however, it seemed like I never stopped. In a cliche I’m sure many of you are familiar with, I sat through many a family gathering, sporting event, and school recess with my nose in a book. My parents, for a time, had a rule that I had to use my allowance to buy toys, etc, but they would buy me as many books as I wanted. This rule didn’t last long, purely because I burned through books so quickly even the library could barely keep up.

So, I read all through elementary school and middle school and high school. In college, I did my best to read on top of school work and mostly succeeded. After college, I worked in a bookstore and read all day in addition to reading at home. My mother was accidentally an early Kindle adopter, and I quickly stole it and filled it with more books than I could otherwise carry in my purse. In the first few years I lived in Boston, I found myself reading slightly less. I recognized that it was because reading was no longer a large component of my job, and before I could worry too much about it, I started really diving back into comics and discovered my library system’s e-lending program, nearly simultaneously. Now I could read on my phone, anywhere, any time, and even when I was too disinterested or depressed to read the book I was in the middle of, hundreds more were at my fingertips.

Last year, the way my depressed brain started to interact with reading changed. I’ve always been plagued by an inability to focus when depressed, but usually that just meant finding the right book to grab my attention. Now I could barely bring myself to focus on the written word at all. If I wasn’t reading fanfiction, I wasn’t reading, period. I pushed my way through a few written books, but it was audiobooks that largely saved me. With the Kindle/Audible partnership that provides the audio of Kindle books you already own at a discount, I was set once again. Sure, I couldn’t focus on words, but listening was somehow easier. I could load my phone up with audiobooks and drift in and out a little if my brain fogged over, but I generally didn’t lose the thread of the story and managed to get through the boring parts by half-tuning out the narration.

And that’s been fine. Mostly. Except that the last few months, even that has stopped.

I can still listen to new music and I’ve had mixed luck with podcasts, but I just can’t get myself to commit to an audio book. The last few things I’ve listened to have been re-listens, and the only things I’ve read with my eyes in the past few months have been books for the podcast.

I’m really, really struggling with this.

Because I’ve always identified myself as a reader! I’ve always thought of myself as a reader! I’m a person who loves stories and loves books and loves writing and loves reading, except I can’t seem to do the last one anymore, no matter how hard I try. It’s embarrassing and demoralizing and a little scary, especially since I’m surrounded by readers everywhere. Fans of the podcast, obviously, but even my friends from before we started Worst Bestsellers are largely readers. I’m a writer, I’m fannish, and most people who claim those identities are also the nerds who read Harry Potter all through their aunt’s Fourth of July barbecue. It’s intimidating to admit that I haven’t finished a non-required book in months when on all sides I’m hearing about what people are reading and how far along they are on their GoodReads challenges.

The funny thing is, it’s not just a reading thing. There’s very little new media that I’ve had the energy to consume. There are tons of new seasons of shows waiting for me to watch, there are movies that I’ve wanted to see, I have a Netflix queue that’s dozens of movies long, but the focus just isn’t there. I watch a lot of comfort teevee–crime shows, Unsolved Mysteries, Gravity Falls, Moana–or just sit in silence refreshing the internet and waiting until bedtime. Despite this, it’s the reading that really weighs on me. I feel a little guilty that I haven’t finished Sense8 season two or made plans to see Wonder Woman yet, but I can barely talk about the fact that I haven’t finished a book in three months. I’m not sure what it is about reading and books in particular that brings that shame down on me–maybe because I think of myself as a writer, a reader, maybe because reading is what smart and quirky creative young women do, maybe because I just know so many book people–but I’m honestly embarrassed to even be posting this. Once I post it, people will know. I won’t be able to make vague comments about books I never finished the next time someone asks me what good books I’ve read recently.

I’m not sure what the solution is, here. I keep trying new audiobooks and picking at eBooks–ARCs from friends, old Kindle purchases, stuff from my library holds list that came in before I suspended all my holds–but it’s been a largely fruitless endeavor so far. I have a feeling that it’s one of those things that can only be solved by time. Eventually, my brain will settle (or so I have to hope, given the current causes of my mental health decline is THE GARBAGE FIRE WORLD and not the usual chemical imbalance in my brain) and I’ll crave new stories again and I’ll fall back into reading headfirst the way I have in the past.

In the meantime, I’m going to try to be a little easier on myself when it comes to not reading and maybe a little more candid about it, too–I’m sure there are lots of other people out there struggling with similar problems. You’re not alone, guys, and I’m sure we’ll all get through this eventually.

3 Comments

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3 Responses to When Reading is Hard

  1. Molly

    I’ve been there. When I was in the process of giving up on finishing my PhD in ancient literature, I had piles of books all over my apartment that began to seriously frighten me. I have always loved reading, and committing to a life of reading as a major part of my job sounded like a great idea. But I was so depressed and anxious that I couldn’t concentrate on anything I tried to read, and books stopped bringing me joy because they were something I was failing at. I had piles of them that I’d never finish reading and piles that I should have read already, and I felt so much shame about being unable to remember anything I tried to read.

    When I finally cut things off with grad school, I immediately started looking for a job at a library or book store, because I wanted to be friends with books again. Now that I don’t have to read anything I don’t feel like reading, I can do it casually and not stress out about it. Mental health is always going to be a problem for me, but if I don’t feel like reading, I don’t have to.

    Hang in there. You don’t have to read all the things to be a book person, and garbage books don’t deserve a great deal of your energy anyway. You’re doing a great job.

  2. Isobel

    This was such a brave blog post, and I think it’s so great that you’re publicly discussion your depression and the way it effects the media that you consume. I read less when I’m going through a depressive period as well, and the sort of things I read VASTLY changes. I go from reading a lot of classics, and a lot of meaty novels, and weighty non-fic to predominantly reading quite schlocky crime novels set in cupcake shops. I work in the book industry so this can be a little difficult so far as job obligations go, but people have always been very understanding and supportive, and when I’m struggling my colleagues have sources schlocky cupcake crimes for me off their own bat, which was lovely and appreciated!

    When you have the capacity and the brain space available for reading and for new media, I know that your brain will naturally start to crave it, until then, try not to stress about it, and I totally recommend many chill rewatchings of murdery things (why is crime so comforting???)

    P.S. The month and a half or so that I was coming off antidepressants last year, I totally mainlined The Worst Bestsellers as pretty much the only way I could sleep at night. I had a really hard time winding down, even though I was continuously exhausted, and you guys are so comforting and cheerful that it really helped me chill. THANK YOU x

  3. Courtney

    I’m a few months late to the party on this one, but I just wanted to say thank you for writing this post. I have been struggling with a very similar thing. I battle depression and anxiety, and just do not have the drive to read lately. And I’m a librarian, so it’s sort of a problem! When I do read, I read at a snail’s pace. I’ve had a book checked out of the library for six weeks now and I’m only halfway through it. Like you, I’ve always been a reader. Like, always. And having this happen the past year or so has been so frustrating.

    I attribute part of it to a year of bouncing around jobs/not having jobs and being generally stressed out, but reading has always been my escape and a way to distract myself from my anxiety/depression. Having reading be a struggle just makes it all so much worse. It’s good to know I’m not alone in this, and I keep hope that we will all get through this!

    P.S. I’d like to add to Isobel’s p.s. and say that you guys make me smile even on the worst days. I’m able to just sit back and listen to you guys laugh and talk about books and quicksand and it’s just so much fun. It’s one of my favorite parts of my day when your podcasts come out.

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