The Trouble With Reading
September 19, 2022 § 35 Comments
By Julie Holston
I love to read, as I assume most writers do. As a nonfiction writer, I know the value of studying memoirs and personal essays and reading outside my genre. I even belong to a book club where, instead of reading the same book for discussion, we show-and-tell the books we’ve each read or are currently reading. We exchange recommendations and sometimes even lend out a beloved book. Everyone goes home with additions to our Libby lists and GoodReads shelves. But whereas some of the group members—several of them fellow writers—read a book or more a week, my quota is closer to a book every two months. I keep books in almost every room at home, and I have titles waiting in my Audible and Kindle queues. I’m surrounded by books, so why don’t I spend more time reading?
When I was a kid, I could lie on the couch in the living room, totally engrossed in Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague while my parents watched Monday Night Football or Columbo in the same room. These days, I need fewer distractions to concentrate. My wife works from home and the Zoom voices carry throughout our small condo, so I’ll stream white noise on my phone if I’m trying to read. But having the phone nearby offers the temptation of using it to look up an unfamiliar word, and once I put down the book and grab the phone, I’ll see a text or a news alert. Before long I’m scrolling, and then I decide to do the Wordle, the Mini Crossword, and the Spelling Bee. The hour I had allotted for reading results in twenty minutes with the actual book.
I’m also attached to the idea that I need to nurse a cozy cup of coffee when I read. The only place to set it down in the living room is the coffee table, so I have to put the book aside and lean forward every time I take a sip, disrupting my reading. If I turn sideways and stretch my legs out on the couch, then I can pull the coffee table close enough to reach. Now I’m pinned, and I’m hoping I haven’t left my phone in the kitchen. If the cat jumps up and snuggles in, I’m rendered even more immobile, so I may as well settle in and read, right? But it turns out, I need both hands to hold a paperback open. Even though my rapidly cooling coffee is now within arm’s reach, I’ll still have to pause my reading to take a sip, closing the book over my fingers to keep it from flipping dramatically out of my grasp in my attempt to hold it open single-handedly.
As a young adult, I would stand in line at midnight to snatch the latest Harry Potter release in hardcover and devour it within a day or two. I never gave any thought to the effort required to hold up a pound or two of pages, whether I was splayed out on my back or curled up in a chair. Now, I need a lap or a table for a hardcover. They’re just too heavy for my middle-aged hands to support. Actually, I enjoy reading at a table, and I’ll do just that in a bookstore, where—bonus!—the table supports both the book and the coffee cup. But sitting at the dining room table feels weirdly formal at home, so I’d rather keep struggling with the couch.
Reading in bed rarely works. If I lie down flat and hold the book on my chest, it’s not positioned in the correct quadrant of my progressive lenses to see the words. I need to tilt my head back uncomfortably against the pillow to find the sweet spot for my eyes. I have prescription reading glasses, but I keep them next to my laptop in the office, and I’m never inclined to go get them once I’ve gone to bed. Sitting up holds promise. I’ll prop up the pillows to support my lower back and settle in at just the right angle so I don’t slide down the mattress. That takes a few minutes, and once I’ve begun to read, my eyes get so tired I fall asleep almost immediately upon opening the book.
I miss the girl who could plop down any place and read any book at any time. I still can’t imagine a more pleasurable way to spend a day than curled up on the couch reading. But it’s all so much trouble now. I may as well just write.
Julie Holston is an emerging writer living in Minnesota with her wife and cat. A native of Arizona, she holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College, and has backgrounds in theatre, music, humanities, and education. She is currently working on a memoir and an unconventional family history.
I can relate. Fun essay. Now I need to go read!
Thanks! Glad to know it’s not just me.
The struggle is real. If I try to read on the sofa, my dog thinks I need something else to do, like taking him outside to play. If I read in bed, I fall asleep so easily. I, too, take a long time to read just one book!
At least we’re all out there trying, right? Maybe we can find a way to get the pets onboard.
I will be 70 next month, and at my age Mom was having trouble reading (and also walking around). She needed more light to comfortably read but refused to accept that.
People tell me all the time they “don’t have time to read” but they can spend hours each day on their cell phone. They are reading but “down the rabbit hole” as we say in my house.
Twenty minutes each day at an average adult reading speed of 300wpm will get a reader through a typical 80k-word book every couple of weeks. If slightly pressed, most college grads read faster than that and with only a 10-minute daily read can finish a book in three or four weeks.
Yes, I fully acknowledge I am my own worst enemy in this endeavor. 🙂
We mostly all share this, don’t we.
I tell this to my students every semester!
Well, that’s why I have the stats at my fingertips—teaching.
My reading life has changed, too, for some of the same reasons. I still read every night in bed before falling asleep. But now it’s usually 15 minutes, not an hour or two. My biggest struggle these days is finding books I love enough to finish…lately, I’ve been giving up on around 7 out of 10 books. Seems the more I write, the loftier my standards get. Thanks for a fun and relatable essay!
Thanks for reading! In my case, I tend to start new books before finishing others. It isn’t that I’m not enjoying them, I just get easily excited about diving into a new story. That results in 6 or 7 partially-read books waiting around for me to get back to them. Probably not the best plan.
My partially-read books might get a second chance, but sometimes I can’t even remember what the first chapters I read were about. If I reread them and still feel ‘meh’ about the early pages, they go back to the library!
Your essay took me right back to when I’d fake a sore throat or some other ailment so I could stay home from school to read whatever it was I couldn’t put down. And all the other too…the weight of books, the angle of the pillow, the glasses in the other room. Except the cat. I don’t have a cat. Thanks for this. Your words brought a smile and a vow to … well, we’ll see.
Yes, we’ll see. 🙂 Maybe a cat would help?
An enjoyable and relatable read, thank you!
Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!
Loved reading this revealing and humorous essay! My excuse for not reading as much as I used to is: I don’t have the right. I used to consider reading so critical to my mind and general well-being that I could stop in the middle of an afternoon doing chores at home and read for a couple of hours. Now, the chores and general complications of the world we live in make me put off reading until bedtime or at the dinner table with my husband reading at the table with me.
Thanks so much for this story.
I understand. Ideally we could all return to a mindset where reading is a priority, but the demands of our lives and the events of the world can really make it a challenge.
If you can’t clear a space to read others’ work, why would you think anyone will make space to read yours?
You raise a valid point, and I recognize the irony in my musings. I’m grateful to everyone who is taking the time to read this piece.
I don’t read with the total absorption I had as a kid either but I try for 25 pages a night. Not always successfully.v If you ask me,it’s email, texting, even blogs , that get in the way of concentrated reading.
Hi Julie. It’s so nice to see someone I know (if only on Zoom) on the Brevity Blog. So congratulations for that. As for reading, I don’t get into a novel as readily as I used to. For a while I thought it was me, but I also now think that styles in novel-writing have changed and they don’t grab as quickly. I have found that I need to stick with it, for the big payoff at the end. Also, hours spent online are not as well spent as a good book – unless, of course, it is as worthwhile as the Brevity Blog!
Hi Dorian, thanks for reading! Agreed, technology has its price.
I can identify with this!
Thanks, glad to know it resonates!
so relatable! thank you 🙂
Good to know! Thank you!
Well put! I can totally relate to both your childhood and current reading! One tiny tip, I read with my coffee in a snap- top travel mug so I can lean back on the couch with my feet up on the coffee table, sip as needed, and it stays hot.
Genius! It’s the little things…
Julie, so true of Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague-I continue to haul my beloved copy around with me 70 years later. Loved that you reminded me. So true all you mention, and I must add that my necessary pot of tea demands another interruption that I have to get up to attend to!
it’s written very beautifully thought I was the one doing those things ,felt nice reading it
I think I could substitute “writing” for each time you referred to “reading.” I have created so many conditions for my writing time. Your essay made me chuckle–at myself and my precious requirements.
Everything you said is so true I experience all that so I’m glad I’m not the only one. I use to pretend I was reading stage scripts from high school to get thru a book in an uncomfortable place.
I’ve started reading books recently, and my problem is the focus. Cannot focus at all. How do people do that? I am reading self-help book but without proper focus and understanding everything I do will be a waste.
In addition there’s the stress of the coming election, the pandemic, knowing new news is breaking. Also, this could stand in as a parallel for all the reasons I don’t write!