Why can’t I focus on books now?

Source: Patricia Brigatell

Call it book stagnation, or call it reader block, it happens to all avid book lovers at some point. We start with a well-reviewed book or one recommended by a trusted friend. Ten pages in, we haven’t shared yet. After I care about a character, plot line, anything. We try another. The same. I do not go. DNF: Not finished.

She has her own Twitter hashtag: #readersblock. People who usually gobble up books find themselves stopping soon after they start writing.

A friend, who was a former high school English teacher, recently shared her experience. She goes to the library, takes out a stack of books a foot high, and ends up putting them back, unread except for the first few pages.

Depression happens everywhere and for most people. But for me, reading has always been a way to fight stagnation. If I don’t feel like writing, drawing, hiking, whatever, then I’m reading.

But, like my friend, I had a slump. I buy or check books recommended by media reviewers or my Goodreads friends and wonder what they’ve seen in them. What’s going on?

mental fog

We’ve lived in the shadow of a cloud of disease since March 2020, and while the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths have declined, as we benefit from a vaccine, we still share a collective trauma. Additionally, one of the physical effects of COVID is mental fog, or a decrease in the ability to think or remember. These cognitive and memory lapses can persist for months after a COVID infection. According to the CDC, nearly 60 percent of Americans have COVID, and some may not have known it.

Stress

But actual illness is only part of the problem – the chaos and division compounded by the pandemic are enormous stresses. According to Harvard Medical School, even those who have not had COVID before can suffer from epidemic-related stress that can lead to encephalitis, with symptoms of mental and physical exhaustion.

Add to that the ongoing political turmoil around the world, and it’s amazing that any of us can get anything done. And while reading seems like a cure for stress, if your mind can’t focus, you can’t follow a book.

Technical Effects

Research on the effects of digital technology on our brains shows that excessive scrolling can increase anxiety and reduce brain function. Most importantly, it can give us a form of ADHD, where we want quick solutions and immediate reactions. A book that doesn’t attract us on the first page can fall prey to more satisfying online reading – we can become part of the conversation in a news article or social media post. It’s instant gratification with less effort.

Post changes

Part of the reading problem is that publishing has become narrower, with larger publishing houses swallowing up smaller publications, resulting in fewer upvotes being published. We get top bestselling authors, celebrities, books with heavily marketed cinematic potential, and some new literary designers with innovative ways to create stories. Halfway storytellers have an audience that is too small for publishers to be bothered by, so their work is not published or distributed. Even worse, we have fewer and fewer editors who can make the story shine.

What do I do?

I resorted to rereading old favourites: Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Ehrlich, Atul Gawande. Others suggest switching genres. Speculative fiction – fantasy, science fiction, and magical realism – has found loyal audiences among those who like to imagine a world completely different from the one we live in. Dystopian books don’t tick any of my current boxes – much like reality – but they hit the mark for others. Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale He found a new connection, and hunger Games Susan Collins’ books have spawned a huge franchise.

But the best solution may be outside the books. Clean your brain with nature walks and an improved diet. Reduce alcohol intake (consumption has risen during the pandemic) and spend time with friends. Talking helps improve mental performance, so go out and visit. Consider speech therapy.

Or join a book club. You may need to try several to find the right look. My reading group has pulled me out of its stagnation for more than a decade by acknowledging the stagnation they are experiencing. So we devised a list of books that fit our brainpower at the moment – some light reading, some thoughtful discussion material, some old standards, some challenges. Hearing why others appreciate a book can gently activate your cognitive juices. And it’s heartening to find a good soul that doesn’t understand it either. A touch of confirmation bias can be beneficial to the psyche.

We interact with books differently at different times. We never read the same book twice. When I first picked up The Overstory, Written by Richard Powers, the multiple stories blew me away at first and I closed the book. Not my specialist. DNF. But the climate activists I follow on social media kept talking about the book, so I tried it again a few months later and was rewarded with what became one of my favorites—wonderful, almost charming in depth and understanding. I recommended it to a book club and one of the members had the same initial reaction – you couldn’t get past the start. We told her to continue. She did, and for several months after that, her social media posts included references to the book. She saw it everywhere.

My books live with me too, and I live a fuller life because of them. Fortunately, my stagnation has been broken. I re-read three books in the Inspector Gamashi Louise Penny series, Bury your dead, beautiful riddle, And the How does the light enter?Then read Sarah Miles’ thoughtful book on Practicing Active Christianity by Feeding the Hungry, Take this bread. This reactivated the reader’s brain and I happily rejoiced at what I love, enjoying a quiet time of contemplation with me and just my book.

To find a therapist, please visit our Psychotherapy Guide today.

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