Why You Can’t Read Right Now

If you’re struggling to finish books and concentrating feels more difficult than ever, take heart — you’re not alone.

This summer, I spoke on Science Friday about my reading recommendations. It was a joy to share some amazing books with people eager to read during the pandemic. But something came up during the interview that left me a little unsettled: the host implied we have more time and energy for reading during quarantine.

Taken at face value, most of us might agree with his statement. People are working from home and can’t go out, so they are instead filling their free time with fiction and nonfiction. Book sales did skyrocket at the start of quarantine — according to Fox Business, book purchases grew 777 percent in the first half of April. Audiobook retailers also experienced a spike.

But is it because people were reading for fun? Not necessarily. MarketWatch found that it has mostly been children’s academic workbooks and skills-based adult books that are succeeding in sales: gardening, crafting, DIY, self sufficiency, health and medicine, and outdoors all saw upticks in the spring. These are books that encourage you to do rather than read for entertainment.

Still, many certainly did turn to books for relief. “People spent more time reading and seeking escape, but an inability to concentrate meant they made less progress than usual,” writes The Conversation. “In short, people spent more time reading but the volume they read was less.”

The Conversation also found that parents had less time for personal reading, but more time to read to/with their children. Those who were reading for themselves indicated that filling knowledge gaps (i.e. books on racism, history) was a big draw toward buying books.

So, was Science Friday’s host right? Sure, some of us may have more time or a stronger desire for reading. But do we have the concentration and commitment to follow through on the books purchased during the spring?

Confession time: I know I haven’t. As someone who struggles with a severe anxiety disorder that’s been fueled by the pandemic, I’ve experienced firsthand the complete inability to concentrate on reading — even as a professional book reviewer.

Because I don’t have the option to work remotely, I have also had to go in to work during the pandemic and have therefore struggled to find the time and energy to sit down and read. Financial constraints have meant working additional hours, too. This just impedes my reading time further.

But what I’m interested in today is the feeling others have expressed that they’re experiencing too: an inability to focus on the books they’ve purchased during the pandemic. What could be going on?

A neuroscientist named Oliver J. Robinson shared his thoughts with Vox in “Why it’s so hard to read a book right now”: It’s about pandemic-fueled anxiety, he said.

“Why are people having difficulty concentrating? They’re trying to resolve an uncertainty that is unresolvable.”

None of us know when a vaccine will be available, or when we’ll be able to see our friends and loved ones again. No one knows if they will catch COVID-19 or how serious their illness will be if they do. In a time of so much uncertainty, anxiety is our natural reaction.

As Robinson notes, research has shown that “anxiety makes time move fast” and someone suffering from anxiety “might have difficulty remembering things, or might have difficulty staying on task, or might have difficulty not focusing on negative things.” This in turn impacts our ability to read. Without being able to concentrate, our mind roams to other things.

In short, we’re stuck in fight or flight mode. It’s hard to read — something leisurely and entertaining — when our bodies and minds are literally just trying to survive.

It’s why reading for pleasure wasn’t a thing until society had advanced to the point people had time and energy leftover for leisure activities. Long ago, the only widely-available book most families owned was the Bible, and they used it for study. Before reading was widespread, stories were spoken and passed along between people, told over the fire or painted on cave walls.

People who were trying to survive — or occupied with thoughts of living through the plague or influenza — didn’t hunker down over a 350 page novel. In some ways, we are trying to do that right now. Some of the biggest sources of stress come from finances and health. Many of us are worried about both.

That’s some serious anxiety-causing stuff. In addition to the distractions caused by social media “doomscrolling” and the 24-hour news cycle, there’s more on our minds than ever before in history.

That’s crazy. Of course we’re struggling to concentrate. So don’t beat yourself up about it. There are ways to overcome it, but it’s hard work and if your cup is already spilling over, you need to be forgiving with yourself.

According to Statista, 40 percent of millennials indicated they are reading more during COVID. Most of them are likely using it as an alternative to streaming services like Netflix and tuning out social media, which just fuels our anxiety. So here are a few tips:

Accommodate reading into your schedule during down-time. When you’d be plunking down on the couch or your bed to watch Netflix, have a book there and ready for you to crack open. Spend 20 to 30 minutes on it, or more if you can.

Don’t read something too challenging to start. This is why I love self-help books or inspirational books when I want something easy to read. You want to encourage yourself by making progress through the first few books you read. Don’t pick up Herman Melville’s Moby Dick after not reading much of anything for a decade and then mope in discouragement when you can’t finish the first chapter. Go easy on yourself at first and work your way up to more challenging material if that’s where you want to go.

Aid your focus and concentration by setting the mood. In the evening I snuggle up on my favorite side of the couch, light the best-smelling candle in the house, and have a hot drink on hand (and maybe a biscuit or two). I leave my phone on silent in the other room. Then I read for as long as I’d like before the need for sleep sets in and I head to bed. Set yourself up for success by ensuring you won’t be distracted, that you’re comfortable, and that reading is the last thing you do before bed. Research has shown this will help with sleep and anxiety, and in exchange you’ll be able to read even more. A positive cycle!

I hope these suggestions help if your goal is to read more. But if all you take away from this article is that you’re not alone, that’s okay too. We may be in different boats, but we’re all trying to survive the same storm. Maybe throwing books out of your boat will help you row faster — but maybe reading is your key to enjoying the stormy sea.

Science writer wrangling words and horses in the Pacific Northwest. | she/they

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