What to do when you just don’t feel like reading anymore
2020 was a good year for reading. I completed upwards of 50 books, and altogether I read nearly a hundred. And why wouldn’t it be a good year? I had the entire year from February onwards completely free (in retrospect I feel I should’ve gotten more out of my time but I’m grateful for the forced opportunity to re-evaluate my priorities) and new areas of interest were opening up in addition to my already existing catalogue of ideas.
But 2020 was also the year when I stopped feeling like I enjoyed my reading and started feeling like it was a chore. From October onwards, I only completed two books and I didn’t read any new ones.
At first, I thought it was because I was feeling depressed about the outcome of my country’s protests on police brutality and general governmental incompetence (for a brief history of the #EndSars protests, see here). But October passed, and so did November, and then I realized that the fallout from the protests wasn’t such a huge factor as I originally had thought.
It was a rough period. I tried everything I could conceivably try. For someone whose identity revolved around how much of an infovore I was, it was disheartening. I only got out of that rough situation in the middle of 2021.
I didn’t know there was a term for my predicament: READER’S BLOCK. It’s like writer’s block but turned towards the activity of reading. It’s what happens when you just can’t bring yourself to read. You stare at a page and no connections form. All you see are large letters. This definition from Urban Dictionary captures it perfectly:
“…this is when you cannot, for the life of you, pick up a book and read it. Sure, you may be able to read a paragraph or two, or maybe even a page, but you don’t retain anything of what you just read or have the attention span and/or will to go on. This is common for those who have ADD, are in possession of garbage literature, or are just so exhausted from having to read so many books during school/college that reading anything else, even for pleasure, has become impossible. To those who love to read, this is worse than heart disease and cancer combined.”
I was suffering from the most extreme version of reader’s block, the one where “reading anything else, even for pleasure, has become impossible”. It was actively a chore.
But I got over it. It took longer than it would’ve if I had access to a community of experienced readers who had also been through the same problems, but I got over it nonetheless. In this article, I’ll share a few steps that anyone can take to get over reader’s block.
You don’t need to finish what you’ve started.
1. Drop the current book you’re reading
I used to be a “finish line at all costs” kind of reader. If I couldn’t finish a book I was reading, I’d guilt trip myself until I finished it. I’d postpone every other book on my reading list until I finished that particular book. When I had reader’s block, I discovered it wasn’t a sustainable way to read. I wasn’t doing myself any favours by pressing on with a book I didn’t enjoy, as I wouldn’t be able to point to anything useful I gained out of the book beyond the fact that by sheer force of will, I finished something.
Not every book is for you. You don’t need to finish what you’ve started. If you feel guilty, you might set a date for returning or alternate the book with a more entertaining version. Willpower is exhaustible.
Even if you’re not experiencing reader’s block, a back to basics approach is always worth it.
2. Read old favourites
This was my favourite part of the “recovery process”. At some point, I just dumped every book and went back to the books that made me love reading. It wasn’t just books. I rewatched old movies and old television series. In true self-doubt fashion, I berated myself for going on a “nostalgia trip”, but there’s nothing wrong with it now and then, especially if you need a spark.
Old books are not just a time capsule that reminds you of why you fell in love with reading in the first place. They’re also useful to check just how far you’ve grown. This was brought to the forefront when I started reading works by Enid Blyton. I love all her books, and the depth and breadth of her imagination were just what I needed at that time. But wow, the racism. I never paid much thought to it as a child, and I cherish her works no less, but it was useful to contextualise her writing in light of her particularly virulent brand of racism, even for her time.
Expanding the example a bit further, I noticed the racial stereotyping in Tom and Jerry (my favourite cartoon ever, and the cartoon by which all other cartoons are judged in my book), and while it wasn’t shocking, it was a reminder of the time in which those works came from and how far we have changed. There’s always something about seeing an old work in a new light. Layers and layers of complexity get added with each take. Even if you’re not experiencing reader’s block, a back to basics approach is always worth it.
…you should consider reading with the opposite approach relative to your usual.
3. Read for “vibes”.
This simply means that you should read for the experience of reading alone. I consider myself an in-depth reader, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I stopped reading to make a few notes about the quality of the material I was reading. That approach to reading was thrown into the open when I started developing issues.
I decided to switch things up a bit. I started picking more thrillers (I read Dan Brown, for example, and while he’s not exactly a thriller writer, he’s sufficiently out of my established style to be considered in that category) and fiction and picked less nonfiction.
You may have noticed that this applies to deep readers like myself, and says nothing about those who prefer to skim. The general gist of this is that you should consider reading with the opposite approach relative to your usual. If you prefer to skim through pages, take an engaged approach to read. If you read fiction, read (sufficiently interesting) nonfiction. Listen to audiobooks. Read picture books. Do something different. Variety is the spice of life.
Loss of interest is traditionally an excellent indicator of something being wrong.
4. Talk to someone.
Sometimes, what we think is the disease is merely a symptom of a greater disease. It might be that your loss of interest in what normally interests you is a sign that you’re getting depressed, or that you’re burnt out and you need a break. Loss of interest is traditionally an excellent indicator of something being wrong. Even if nothing is wrong, sharing your problems with a friend or with a community of readers gives to the opportunity to access points of view on your predicament that you may not have noticed.
Reading is a beautiful thing. A book is essentially a present that you can open over and over again, and it would be a shame to miss out on reading by no fault of your own, whether it’s circumstantial (not being able to access books in your local community, no access to the internet), or psychological, like reader’s block.
I’ll end this with a quote from Richard Wright’s “Black Boy”, itself a book about the windows of opportunity that knowledge can offer:
Occasionally I glanced up to reassure myself that I was alone in the room. Who were these men about whom Mencken was talking so passionately? Who was Anatole France? Joseph Conrad? Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Dostoevski, George Moore, … Huneker, Nietzsche, and scores of others? Were these men real? Did they exist or had they existed? And how did one pronounce their names?
I ran across many words whose meanings I did not know, and I either looked them up in a dictionary or, before I had a chance to do that, encountered the word in a context that made its meaning clear. But what strange world was this? I concluded the book with the conviction that I had somehow overlooked something terribly important in life. I had once tried to write, had once reveled in feeling, had let my crude imagination roam, but the impulse to dream had been slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing. It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different.