Did 2020 Turn Us Into “Bad” Readers?

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Back in May, I wrote a story titled “I’m a Books Editor and I...Don’t Want to Read Right Now.” It was about—you guessed it—how even though reading and writing about books is a major part of my job, I was having trouble focusing on reading. “I have a confession,” I revealed. “During this quarantine, I’ve been embarrassingly delinquent about reading.” 

Just a couple months into COVID-19, I was in a reading drought. This, too, shall pass, I assumed. But here’s the thing: It didn’t pass. I haven’t read this few books in a year since…ever? In theory, there has never been a better time to dive into the contents of my bookshelf. (Transcendent Kingdom! I see you…and oh how I long to open your chic, millennial pink and gold jacket!) But in practice? I read only the ten or so books I reviewed for PureWow and maybe two others. Yikes.

Pre-pandemic, I read all the time. I read on the subway, I read before falling asleep and sometimes I even read at my desk. (It’s part of my job!) I’ve always viewed reading as an escape. As a very (very) anxious person, I find it hard to check my brain out of my own reality. I replay conversations and scenarios and overthink quite literally everything that I do or say. Seemingly magically, reading allows me to turn my focus onto someone else’s life, if only for a few precious hours.

But this year, for whatever reason, that stopped working. Rather than bringing me joy, reading came to feel like a burden, and the more bummed out I became about not reading, the more I beat myself up about it. I tried to sit down with Raven Leilani's acclaimed debut Luster. But after only a few minutes, I found myself picking up my phone to watch TikToks of dogs getting their lips stuck on their teeth (if you know you know).

Of course, I’ve heard of plenty of people who have been reading more than ever. “I’ve absolutely been tearing through books,” says one friend. “When I wake up in the middle of the night stressed about not being able to see my parents or, you know, humanity as a whole, I sneak into a cozy arm chair and plow through 75 pages of whatever novel I’m into.” But I also know I’m not alone. Says one colleague: “I used to read on my daily commute (roughly two hours a day) and now that I don’t have to travel into the office, I find myself having trouble taking the time to actually sit down and read. On the train, it was a nice distraction from loud chewers and music blasting through headphones, but now, it almost seems like a chore.”

Still, maybe I shouldn’t view our “confessions” as a confessions at all. After all, in 2020, we’re all just doing our best. Maybe you didn’t meet your annual reading goal; maybe your book club turned into more of a “let’s get tipsy over Zoom and bitch about distance learning” club; maybe you’ve found a nightly TikTok scroll to be more cathartic than reading 50 pages of whatever book is on your nightstand. If this dumpster fire of a year has taught me anything, it’s that everyone handles tough situations differently, and we shouldn’t judge ourselves not coping “the right way.” 

But here’s the thing: I’m hopeful. I know that my reaction to literature this year is not indicative of my reaction to literature forever. I’ve adored books for longer than I’ve known how to read;  it’s only a matter of time before my passion is reignited. And when it does, I’ll look back and laugh at the yearlong break I took from my oldest and favorite hobby.

Who knows. By then, maybe there will even be a book about it.

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...