I used to be a voracious reader.
I used to read – I am not exaggerating – hundreds of books a year. I was on first-name terms with the librarians at my school. I did an English degree where we would read 3-5 books per module. Once, I took a book to the pub with a friend and she had to sit on it to keep me from reading when I got bored with the music. When I was doing the last year of my PhD, I kept track of the books I read for pleasure (not connected with my thesis, so most nonfiction books didn’t make the cut). By the end of December, the list included over 140 books.
And then… something changed.
I don’t know why, but I find it so much harder to read lately. Last year, I barely made it to 45 books. True, there was a panorama that took a big swing to everyone’s mental fortitude, but it was getting bad before 2020. When I lived in the Netherlands, my pleasure reading was few and far between.
Nowadays, I set aside time every day to read, but I have to physically drag myself through the books. I read like I’m forcing myself to swallow medicine – checking the number of pages to see how much I have left before I can finish the chapter and justify putting it down for the day. And these aren’t bad books. In fact, they are objectively excellent. I just can’t bring myself to sit down and open them. Investing in the characters and their world is just… too much.
I have to force something that used to be as natural as breathing.
That sucks. Especially because engaging with literature is kind of my job.
So, like any sane millennial, I googled it.
Here’s what I found:
Why is this happening? Why is my brain refusing to engage with fiction the way it used to. Why can’t I seem to enjoy reading anymore?
There are lots of reasons that a cursory google search will spit out. Michael Cronk’s (great name) blog post on reading as an adult offers reasons like “I don’t have the TIME to read”, “I don’t know what to read”, and “I just don’t see the point of reading”.
None of those apply to me. I have made time, I have a list and a TBR pile that could probably smother a medium sized elephant, and reading is my literal job.
Cronk’s post did float the idea that reading might just be “too much work”. He talks about how the ‘reading muscle’ can be out of practice if we don’t read often enough. While I’m not sure I agree with that phrasing, the idea of a ‘reading muscle’ intrigues me. The ‘reading muscle’ in the body is really just the brain. So maybe my problem is there.
So I found a post published by Harvard Medical School on how to work around having trouble reading. The author, Heidi Godman, offers three potential reasons that people – at any age – can have difficulty reading: difficulty concentrating, mild cognitive impairment, and physical changes.
Mild cognitive impairment, btw, is a noticeable change in thinking and memory skills. According to the post, “You may miss some appointments, lose things often, have more difficulty recalling names or words you’d like to use, or have a harder time finding familiar places and keeping track of important dates.” The post also talks about lack of sleep and stress as factors that can contribute to that cognitive impairment.
So… the symptoms of depression then.
It all comes back to that little bastard, doesn’t it?
The scholarly research seems to be a bit on the fence about the extent to which depression affects cognition – that is, they know that it does affect the brain’s automatic and effortful processing, but there seems to be some debate about how much. There seems to be some research on using reading as a treatment for depression, though. Not very helpful in my case, since the act of reading itself has become more difficult than I’d like.
A lot of blog posts quote psychologists and neurologists, and while these aren’t exactly blind peer-reviewed, they do offer some insight.
An interesting post from Now Toronto on why reading was so difficult in 2020 specifically quotes a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, Dr Steve Joordens: “Anxiety is an adaptive response that’s supposed to help us stay alive when we’re under threat.”
“For our ancestors, if you were out gathering berries and a predator stepped in your way, you’d go into what we call ‘fight-or-flight mode,’ which is basically your body screaming at you to do something. During that time, the blood literally leaves the frontal lobe of the brain, and is aimed at getting you out of that situation or taking on the threat, whatever the case might be. We’re primed for action, but we’re not necessarily primed for complex thinking.”
Reading involves the frontal lobe, which allows you to suspend reality, make the current world disappear and engage the imagination in an extended narrative. So if you’re anxious or stressed, the frontal lobe doesn’t get as much attention and thus effortful cognitive tasks, like reading, become more difficult.
2020 was the Year of Anxiety, of course, but I’ve had generalised anxiety disorder for years. Ever since a few years into my PhD. Since I was still reading a lot when I finished, I don’t know if that is the entire reason for my current reading woes.
Another post from Healthline about the connection between mental illness and reading quotes Alyssa Williamson, a psychotherapist specialising in trauma: “Trauma absolutely affects cognitive ability, concentration, our ability to learn, and yes, even our ability to read. I commonly have clients come in thinking they have ADD or ADHD or anxiety, and many times they’re actually dealing with trauma.”
Similarly, the post quotes Mark Vahrmeyer, an integrative psychotherapist: “If we are carrying unprocessed trauma… we may be able to read the words on a page — mechanically, like a machine — but we cannot use higher brain function to make sense of [them]. [It’s also hard to] allow ourselves to imagine the mind of another… In a dysregulated state of feeling overwhelmed, there is no ‘other’, only threat.”
I do have some of that. The middle and end of my PhD was loaded with that, and once I was finished and submitted, I immediately dipped out on a gap year that turned into a three year contract in a job that, while working with lovely people, did leave a mark.
According to the people quoted in this post, when we don’t process trauma, we become so overwhelmed that we struggle to think, analyse, and empathise with the people and emotions we read about. We may be able to read the words on the page, but we might struggle to lose ourselves in the fictional world because we’re hyper-focused on our own world.
Again, none of these are peer-reviewed so they should be taken with a grain of salt. But still… it’s something to start with, isn’t it?
So what next?
It’s simple, really. All I have to do is deal with the trauma and cure my depression.
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂