Ada Hoffmann: When reading is hard
Huge thanks to author Ada Hoffmann for today's guest post, which will likely strike a chord with many of us! Ada is the author of the OUTSIDE series, the third book of which, THE INFINITE, is out from Angry Robot in January 2023 (preorder here).
If you're like me, you know that diving into a good book can be a source of great joy and a wonderful escape from stressful circumstances. But, in the middle of a pandemic and other long term crises, many of us paradoxically find it harder to read. It takes a particular kind of energy and focus to let the words of a book sink into you, and a particular kind of emotional space to let a fictional world come alive. Even if we theoretically have the time for that, some of us can't quite muster up the energy to use it.
If that's you, you're not alone! I've been there too. Here are some tips that worked for me in the pandemic and that might help you get your enthusiasm for books back.
1. Change up the format
In hard times, you might find one book format is more accessible to you than another. Personally it takes more work for me to concentrate on an ebook than a paper book. Somehow physically holding the book in my hands makes it easier for me to focus on what it says.
In the middle of the pandemic, I got really behind on my reviews series - in one case, when I was trying to read a big and very dense ebook, it took me a whole year. When I put my foot down and set a rule that I would only review paper books, I immediately picked up the pace again - like magic! It even worked with the next, equally big, dense book in the same series. I was ready for the plot and the ideas, I just had to have them on paper pages I could hold.
Of course paper books are not the right solution for everyone. You might find that a particular ebook format is what you need - say, with the ability to set the font nice and big, or the colors a certain way. Or you might do best when listening to audiobooks. Whatever the best format is for you, embrace it. The content of the book is the same either way, so do whatever you need to make it easy for you to absorb it.
2. Change up the genre
If you're really struggling to focus, it might not be time for the scholarly book with all the footnotes, the fantasy doorstop with 500 characters, or the book of abstruse experimental poetry. It might be time for something easier to digest. Genres like romance, young adult, or even graphic novels often have a more accessible tone - and there's just as much literary merit, insight, and joy in these genres as any other.
You might also find some books more emotionally difficult than others. If real life is scaring the crap out of you, it might not be time to read a terrifying horror novel. On the other hand, some people living in scary times might find a horror novel cathartic and relatable! This is very individual and there is no wrong way to approach it. Just pay attention to what works and doesn't work for you emotionally right now.
If there are difficult books that you really want to read, you don't need to abandon them! You might just need a little moderation. Sometimes when a book is very challenging for me, I'll set myself to reading just a couple of pages at a time, and the rest of my reading time goes to something easier. It's slower but I promise you, if you are getting something out of the challenging book, you will make it to the end.
3. Read about what interests you
This might sound too obvious for words, but in difficult times it's especially important to look for the books that give you authentic fascination and joy. Not just the ones you think you "should" read, or the ones that you think would be good for you, or even the ones that other people said were "good" books, but the ones that are calling to you personally. This is especially true for people on the autism spectrum; our interests can be very intense and can be very deep sources of renewal and joy. But I think it's true for everyone else, too.
In early 2019, when my burnout and depression were at their worst, I noticed that the only things that made me smile were fan essays about Star Wars. You can bet that I pounced on all of the fan essays about Star Wars I could find. It helped. No shame. I outgrew that phase and broadened my interests again eventually, but it's all about finding what catches your interest and keeps you afloat.
The converse also applies! People's interests change over times. If your TBR pile is big, chances are there are some books in there that you wanted to read when you got them, but that don't appeal to you anymore. Instead of slogging through books that don't interest you just for the sake of shrinking the pile, you should gravitate to the books that do. The remaining books can be donated to a library or thrift store for someone else to enjoy.
4. Be kind to yourself
The whole point of reading for pleasure is that it benefits us as readers. It's fun, it's mind-expanding, it gives us lots of new things to think about. If reading isn't any of these things for you right now, even after following the advice in the other three steps, it's okay. Don't beat yourself up. You might be spending all your energy just on surviving. You might need to spend a while finding pleasure somewhere else. It's better to do that, and be compassionate to yourself, then to try and try to keep doing a thing that isn't working for you right now.
Schedules, challenges, and reading goals can be great things for us: they give us the nudge and the structure we need to do more of a thing that we like and want to do. I am absolutely in favor of them for that purpose - which is why I'm writing on a blog about a reading challenge! But if that's not you right now, no matter what you try, it's okay. It doesn't have to be.
Ultimately, this is all just for fun. All those books on your TBR pile? Trust that they will still be there when the crisis is over. You'll love them even more because you came to them when you were ready again.
ADA HOFFMANN is a Canadian graduate student trying to teach computers to write poetry. Their acclaimed speculative short stories and poems have appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov's, Uncanny, and two year's best anthologies. Ada was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at 13, and is passionate about autistic self-advocacy. They are a former semi-professional soprano, a tabletop gamer and an active LARPer. They live in southern Ontario with a very polite black cat.