For someone who has voraciously devoured books practically ever since I learned how to read, a reading slump is possibly one of the most alarming things imaginable. When that reading slump lasts almost a year, alarm becomes panic.
Not being able to stay interested in a book —actually putting it down without finishing it — is bad enough. This happened to me about a decade ago, towards the end of my college years, a time when I probably read the most variety of genres and finished 750-page books a day. I eventually got past the idea that I wasn’t allowed to put down a book unfinished if it held no interest for me.
But around this time last year, after a series of instances where no book held my interest past the first handful of pages — to the extent that I stopped taking up books at all, because what was the point? — came real fear. Was I becoming stupider? Why didn’t anything hold my attention? Even historical fiction, my favourite genre which constitutes the bulk of my reading, was losing its appeal.
It’s not like I didn’t read anything at all; I did. The internet has a plethora of material to keep anyone occupied for days. And I had a whole bank of favourites — comfort reading, books that I enjoy reading over and over again — to fall back on. So it’s not as if the need to read was going neglected.
But you see, I wasn’t reading any new books.
Worse, the lack of new reading began to have an impact on my writing. At first, the fact that I wasn’t reading didn’t alarm me much. Whatever time I normally spent on a book was now being diverted to my writing instead. It didn’t matter whether I published anything or not (I mostly didn’t), I wrote for myself and the words kept flowing.
But soon, the inspiration to write began evaporating, along with motivation, until I was left staring at a blank page for several hours on end without having written a single word. This was serious.
2015 ended in that state, and 2016 began. Goodreads asked if I wanted to do a reading challenge. Hell yes, I thought. This was it. What better solution to the problem than to set — and meet — deadlines on reading? Especially for someone like me, for whom daily deadlines have been bread and butter my entire working life?
So, yes Goodreads, I’m taking up your reading challenge. I’m going to read one book a week — so, 52 books in 2016. An easily achievable goal, child’s play really. I’m going easy on myself, I thought at the time. And I read nothing at all for the first whole month.
I did finally start, with George R. R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, a really good book that I enjoyed. It finally felt like a good omen. Then I read another, and still one more. I tried, and mostly succeeded, at not putting down a book once I got started. There were some misses (the first two instalments of Nora Roberts’s Guardians Trilogy were a disappointment, Kate Forsyth’s The Witches of Eileanan series was passable, but didn’t really inspire me to continue after the first two books, and Stephanie Laurens’ The Adventurers Quartet was abominable), and some hits — Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (the sequel to Wolf Hall) was gripping, and I lost a night’s sleep to John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas because I couldn’t put it down.
But halfway through the year and 15 books behind schedule, I’d long since lost momentum, and the reading slump was winning.
It would have been pretty awesome if, at the hour of my crisis, I’d stumbled upon the perfect book that got me hooked right back onto reading, and made everything alright and solved all of my life’s problems too, while it was at it. But that’s not how it works.
Since I couldn’t not read, I did two things. I halved my Goodreads challenge — 25 felt like a much more realistic goal. And I read literally anything that held my attention. And a lot of it was crap.
If you’re ever stuck in a similar situation, my advice would be to just read. Read whatever, no matter how bad you think it is, if it holds your attention. I ended up mocking everything in some books that were particularly awful (there was a lot of eye rolling involved). Eventually, you’ll get sick of it, and the need for literary nourishment will put you right back on the quest for the good stuff.
Once you reach that point, there’s no dearth of the ways in which you can find your next book. Switch genres, read something by your favourite authors that you haven’t read yet, read those books you put off reading for some reason, ask friends for recommendations. If you’re anything like me, you’ll soon have added at least twenty books to your to-read list that already has hundreds of titles.
A useful trick: before every book that you think will be a good read — because it’s something you haven’t read yet by your favourite author, or because the movie they made about it was pretty good, or because your friend recommended it and she’s never been wrong before — read a book you’re not too sure of. It might be just okay, it might even be bad, but then again, it might just be a surprisingly good one. And you have the advantage of knowing your next book will be a good one anyway.
So, have I gone back to my voracious reading ways? Not exactly. But I’m reading again. I’ve surprisingly gone farther past my reading goal than I thought I would. And I’ve read more good stuff than bad, which is certainly a plus.
More importantly, I’m writing again, even though it’s not much, and certainly won’t see the light of day.
Some of the highlights of my reading so far:
A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R. R. Martin
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins
French Lessons and Toujours Provence by Peter Mayle
The Martian by Andy Weir