Back in March, when it became clear that we’d be spending every second of the foreseeable future inside, many of us thought, ‘At least, we have plenty of time to read!’. Almost a year later (but who’s counting?), let me tell you—that has not been the case, for most. Like, at all. Take me, for instance. I am typically a very hungry bookworm, and had devoured 17 books in 2020, before the pandemic hit. But since I have been in quarantine, I have only managed to finish one.
This is especially frustrating because books are, well, my thing. I am an author of three novels, including Head Over Heels, a rom-com about Olympic gymnasts. I keep ordering books online and adding titles by the dozen to my ‘want to read’ list on Goodreads. But now, even with more free time than ever before, my attention span fizzles out just after a chapter or two.
Obviously, a pandemic doesn’t create ideal reading conditions, especially if you are sick, or grieving the loss of a loved one, or out of work. If you are one of the many readers who purchased a handful of books to get through the times, and don’t know which book to start first, you could feel paralysed.
“People’s lives have been turned upside down and there’s a lot of uncertainty, so there’s a chronic sense of distraction,” says Dr Ramani Durvasula, licensed clinical psychologist based in the US. Especially if you’re glued to the news, out of work, or worried about a sick loved one. This is because reading is more demanding on your brain than other forms of chill-time, like zoning out in front of the TV. But reading can serve as a wonderful escape, and a form of education.
I tapped authors and avid readers for their tips on how to get into a new book when your brain feels like mush. Here’s what they suggested...
MAKE YOUR TO-BE-READ LIST IRL
Sure, you may have a to-be-read list on Goodreads, but there’s something pretty legit about seeing those physical books every day. “I put three books next to my bed that I know I want to read in the next month or two,” says actress Emma Roberts, Co-Founder of the book club, Belletrist. “That motivates me and gets me excited. I am like, ‘Okay, this is the order I’m going to read them in, and these are my next three books’.”
If sitting down makes you restless, audiobooks might be your new best friends. “I’ve found that listening to a book while cleaning or cooking helps me finish more of them,” says Ashley Spivey, a former contestant on US reality show, The Bachelor, who now runs a book club.
CREATE A NEW READING ROUTINE
Elisabeth Thomas, author of Catherine House, used to read while commuting. But now that the extent of her commute is mainly from her bed to her couch, she practises a modified routine. “I like reading first thing in the morning, before getting started on my work of the day,” Elisabeth says. “Just like I did when I had a commute. I curl up on my couch with a big mug of tea, and read for half an hour. I think the ritual really helps with concentration,” she explains.
“Schedule a time to read every day, regardless of how little or how much time you can commit to reading,” suggests Etaf Rum, author of A Woman Is No Man, who also runs a bookstore.
TAKE A ‘MIND VACATION’
In February last year, my book club decided our next pick would be Ling Ma’s Severance, a novel about a fictional pandemic. By the time we met up again in March (this time on Zoom), most of us had abandoned the book because it hit terrifyingly close to home.
It turns out, we were all desperately overdue for what Ashley calls a ‘mind vacation’—something to distract us from our current situation. She says, “I love literary and historical fiction, but, because everything is so dire right now, I just want happy romances.”
Try You Should See Me In A Crown by Leah Johnson. Or if happily-ever-afters aren’t doing it for you, try something totally different. “I love the idea of travelling through books,” says Frances Cha, author of If I Had Your Face. “I’m starting Unorthodox, about a Hasidic Jewish woman who flees her community in Brooklyn to Berlin.”
TWO WORDS: SHORT STORIES
“I have been sending this to everybody in quarantine—a sci-fi short story, The Touches, by Brenda Peynado,” says Emma. “It is a really nice way to connect with a friend, and have an attainable goal instead of tackling that 400-page book that you never read but said you would.”
TWO MORE WORDS: GRAPHIC NOVELS
Frances suggests turning to comic books, too. “New Yorker cartoonist Liana Finck’s new book Excuse Me: Cartoons, Complaints, And Notes To Self is excellent, literary, dark, and funny,” she says. Plus, pretty pictures.
TRADE BOOK CARE PACKAGES
In lieu of seeing your friends in-person right now, consider sending each other care packages stuffed with books. “When I ran out of things to read, getting a care package with a book was like gold,” Emma recalls.
JOIN A BOOK CLUB
“Having a book club gives you a sense of community,” says Emma. She would know—she’s loved them ever since childhood, when she was home-schooled and leaned on book clubs to connect with others. “So many great conversations and personal stories can come out of sharing a book with someone.”
If deadlines keep you motivated, a book club might be the perfect tool to keep you turning the pages. “When I’m in one, there’s no excuse for me to stop reading,” says Etaf.
IT IS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD IF YOU NEED A BREAK FROM READING
Sometimes your brain is just like, ‘Nope!’. And that’s okay. “We’re going through a worldwide trauma in slow motion,” Elisabeth reminds us. Set the book down and come back to it later. It’ll still be there for you when your mind is clear.
It turns out, we were all desperately overdue for a ‘mind vacation’—something to distract us from our current situation.