After writing last week’s post on the video games I’ve played during the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought I would look at some other media that has keep me going over the past year. There’s just one problem: I haven’t turned to each medium equally. Since the pandemic started, I have hardly read any books at all. So instead, I’m going to look at what happened to my love of reading.
I know I’m not alone. I have seen several friends post on social media about how they too have read next to nothing since last March. One of them has a master’s degree in English Literature. But at the same time, it’s far from a universal experience. Other friends happily posted in late December about meeting their yearly reading goals. For a few of them, that was equivalent to a book a week.
Some people are more avid readers than others. But if I had to plot myself on a spectrum between avid readers and the book averse, I would be on the side with the book worms. I haven’t read at a novel-a-week rate since university, but in normal times I would always have a book on the go. In fact, at the start of the pandemic I organized a shelf dedicated to books I planned to read to pass the time in quarantine. For whatever reason, I haven’t touched it.
What the hell happened to me? Why did I apparently lost my love of reading right as I gained significantly more time that could be dedicated to books? If you’re in a situation similar to mine, I hope my answers provide you with some clarity.
Why did I stop reading?
On paper, working from home means no commute and therefore more free time that could be spend reading. In practice though, working from home might be the single biggest reason why I haven’t touched my backlog of books.
My commute was about an hour round trip, and I spent a third of it walking. That gave me 40 minutes a day to kill on the subway, assuming things were running smoothly (a bold assumption). I often filled that time with my nose in a book. Furthermore, because I had 40 minutes a day, 5 days a week, set aside just for reading, I rarely opened a book outside that time unless the one I was reading was particularly compelling.
You can see where this is going. The pandemic came along and upended this daily ritual. But it didn’t touch the activities I would do before work, such as making food and getting cleaned up, aside from giving me more time to do them. Reading was doomed from the start since I so rarely did it at home.
Another aggravating factor: I happened to be between books last March when I began working from home. Maybe if I had a book on the go things would have been different.
(Aside: Looking back, reading on the subway has the same energy as forcing a child to eat their vegetables. The person reading/eating broccoli would prefer what’s in front of them to be something else, but it’s better than the alternative [avoiding eye contact with strangers/going hungry]. I swear I actually enjoy reading, but this comparison is funny and I had to point it out.)
Blame is on my brain
That explanation is good enough for the first month or so of lockdown, but it’s been a year. I have adopted tons of new habits in perpetual lockdown. Why wasn’t reading one of them?
One word: anxiety. My brain tends toward chaos on a good day, and we’ve had few of those this past year. With a pandemic raging outside and all the worry that comes with it, my anxiety levels have been high since last March.
To combat anxiety, all I really need to do is get moving. In my experience, people who don’t eat around their kitchen table instead use that furniture as an inbox for junk they don’t know how to deal with. I am no different. However, my junk-inbox table has the added benefit of being an anxiety sink. If I’m having a bad time, I just walk over to the table and start putting things away. I usually feel better when I’m done.
Activities that require your full attention, like walking around the neighbourhood and playing video games, also help, especially with the more general anxiety brought on by living how we all must live now.
Books, meanwhile, are a much more passive medium. You sit there and let them happen to you. Turning a page once every few minutes isn’t enough to cut it. On top of that, you’re in your head the whole time you’re reading a book. That’s the last place you want to be while anxious. Active tasks work so well because they force me to be in my body rather than my malfunctioning head.
Another mental barrier to reading
While we’re talking about brains malfunctioning, let’s talk about a weird perception problem many people, including me, have about books. We think books take way longer to read than they do.
If you’re familiar with the games I discussed last week, you’ll know they are all long. The Nonary Games were the shortest ones on my list, and they each took around 20-30 hours to play. Persona 5 and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild both took over 100 hours.
Let’s compare that with some books I could have read but did not. I have been meaning to read The Waves by Virginia Woolf for years. HowLongToRead.com says it would have taken me only 4 hours and 37 minutes. The copy I have is 167 pages (though that website provides a much larger number), so the book is tiny. How about something like Arundhati Roy’s 321-page The God of Small Things. That would take 6 hours and 1 minute. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations would take 4 hours and 56 minutes to read, or so the site says. In reality, I would have to read everything two or three times to understand it. Even then I’m only looking at 15 hours.
Let’s consider a more universal example. Students everywhere are loath to read Shakespeare’s plays, but those only take a couple of hours to perform. You can read several in an afternoon if you’re determined.
Yet if given the choice between a 6-hour book and a 100-hour game, I’ll probably grab the controller. This is clearly some sort of bias. My guess is it has to do with how long it took to work through things like Shakespeare back in high school English. At my school, we did about a scene per class, which dragged each play out over the span of months. Maybe those agonizing, boring months skewed our perception of how long it takes to read a book. Despite an English degree that proved to me that you can read several books a week, my flawed perception persists. Occasionally, it dissuades me from reading.
The social angle
Probably the biggest factor turning me off from reading is that it’s something you do alone. I can easily persuade my partner to sit with me and chat while I play video games or watch a TV show, but I need the room to be quiet if I am to read. The pandemic annihilated my social outlets, so about the last thing I want to do is something that takes me further away from other people.
If you’ve read what I’ve written about video games, you know part of my enjoyment comes from talking to people about what I played and seeing their interpretations. The same goes for books. I enjoy discussing what I’ve read with my social circles online. The problem is they’re rarely on the same page. Books don’t frequently go viral, and most people I know tend to read whatever is in their (often massive) backlogs rather than keep up with all the hot new releases.
Another problem: Social media leans heavily into photos and videos, but books make for bad visual content. It’s either selfies with the book, a snap of the cover, or awkward pictures of snippets of text. I’ve done all three and never been happy with the results (aside from the photo accompanying this article). These sorts of posts don’t lend themselves well to discussions of characters and themes.
Instead, I just keep what I’m reading off social media and do it just for me. There’s nothing wrong with that, and when I had social outlets (as well as those 40 minutes a day to dedicate to the task and low general anxiety) it was enough to get me to read several books a year. I’m now living without all those things and that has changed the equation.
What I keep dancing around is the fact that I don’t know what I would be reading for. Normally it would be for my enjoyment, but life is anything but normal right now, and that has severely limited how much enjoyment I think I would derive from books. Additionally, I have turned to other media to do what books once did for me. I can find compelling stories, view the world from a different perspective, learn important lessons, and find entertainment in other media, which don’t necessarily come with the downside of locking myself in a quiet room.
When I put it that way, I don’t feel so bad for how little reading I’ve done.
Still, I wouldn’t have made this post if my low pandemic page count didn’t bother me. Maybe all I need to do is give it another try. At some point I’ll report back on how that went.
How about you? Have you been reading more during the pandemic or are you in the same boat as me? Let me know in the comments or on social media.
I relate so much! The anxiety/racing mind has often made it hard for me to focus on reading, and that’s before the pandemic!
I hear you. The pandemic really only made it worse. I’ve found recently that (quietly) listening to those lofi indie hip hop YouTube streamers helps me focus.