“You get paid to read?” “You get invited to those fancy book parties in movies?” “You haven’t had to pay for a book in how many years?!” These are all questions I’ve fielded from book-loving friends and strangers upon hearing that part of my job is reading and writing about books. And while I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do so (my third-grade self would just about die if she could see me now), I have a confession: During this quarantine, I’ve been embarrassingly delinquent about reading.
I know, I know. Now is the perfect time to dig into the new Curtis Sittenfeld or work my way through the recently announced Pulitzer Prize-winners. But reader, my attention span during this pandemic is, in a word, shot.
Every time I sit down to start a new book, my mind immediately wanders to all of the lower stakes things I could be doing instead. I find myself having to reread passages multiple times to fully comprehend. I'll also note that I'm not not reading because I'm too busy with kids or anything (huge shoutout to parents); it's just me, myself and I—and a pretty free schedule—and I still can't bear to dive into a buzzy fiction or gripping biography. I'm not proud of this, but most times, I'll abandon the book I'm trying to read for Netflix, Instagram or...TikTok. (I said I'm not proud.)
Turns out, I’m not the only one. My mom, Ellen, who made it a goal last year to read more, has found it hard to focus on the lives of fictional characters. “There’s too much to think about in the real world,” she told me. “I don’t need a whole made-up universe to worry about at the same time.” PureWow’s senior SEO editor, Alexia Dellner, is reading children’s books during quarantine. Yes, she’s reading them to her son, but she tells me that the kid-level words and pictures are giving her mind a much-needed break—a break she wouldn’t get with a 700-page tome about the British monarchy in the 17th century.
Here’s how Susan Biali Haas, M.D., a physician who speaks and writes about stress management, burnout prevention and mental health, sees it. “There’s nothing wrong with being productive or creative,” she writes. “It can be a helpful, constructive way to cope. But we must also allow ourselves space to not be ‘amazing.’ Our world has not faced anything like this in over a century. It’s big. It’s OK, and even appropriate, to not be OK. Some people may feel like failures because they are not sufficiently ‘seizing the moment’ within this pandemic. Because they are struggling to cope. I have felt this way at times.”
While I’m not tackling my entire to-be-read list right now, here are three ways I’m working around my lack of desire to pick up a new book.
- Seek Out Longform Articles
I’ve always been a longform fanatic, and now more than ever, I’m leaning into compelling stories I can start and finish in a single sitting. A few I’ve devoured recently are The New Yorker’s profile of Fiona Apple, Marie Claire’s investigation of a notorious Hollywood scammer and The New York Times’s account of quarantining with a ghost.
- Revisit “Comfort” Books
OK, so this might be cheating a little, but I’ve found that rereading books I’ve loved is a fantastic way to read without having to pay the closest attention. So far I’ve only taken my own advice twice (with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake), but I’ve found it comforting to read something familiar and beloved.
- Opt for Short Books
If you find yourself struggling to read anything that’s longer than 200 pages, now is not the time to finally dig into The Goldfinch. Instead, seek out shorter, more digestible titles that have a better chance of holding your attention. Here are 14 that you can start and finish in a single day.
Finally, don’t beat yourself up about not using this time to read and create and be radically productive. Life is stressful enough right now; if you choose an episode of Too Hot to Handle over a biography of George Frideric Handel, that’s OK. We’re all doing the best we can. And if you find yourself feeling attacked by an article reprimanding you for not “making the most of quarantine,” you have my full permission to stick out your tongue at the author’s byline, shut your computer and scroll Instagram.