It’s no secret that I love to read. Being a reader has always been a huge part of my identity; I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love reading and books.
As a kid, I loved going to my local library and getting out a big stack of books. I’d go home, dump the pile on my bed, and settle in. I loved books about vampires, anthropomorphic animals, and children leading double lives as detectives or spies. I loved escaping into fantasy worlds. I read the first Harry Potter book when I was 11 (I literally grew up with HP) and I longed to get an acceptance letter from Hogwarts in the post.
As a teenager, weekend mornings were for drinking tea in bed and reading. I still mostly escaped into fictional fantasy worlds—Middle Earth and His Dark Materials—but I also started to escape into the past: Dickens’s London, Hardy’s Wessex, and Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg. When I went off to university, I carted most of my library with me (and back again, between Manchester and Scotland, twice a year—you’d think I’d have gotten good at packing books into boxes, but it’s still a skill that eludes me). My library also grew considerably when I started doing some extra curricula volunteering at a second-hand bookstore.
After my undergraduate degree, I did an MA in nonfiction nature and travel writing. The MA completely changed the type of books I read, from primarily reading fiction, to almost exclusively reading nonfiction. But weekend mornings still found me reading for hours, always with a cup of tea. Weekend afternoons were also for curling up with a book—I often went for walks just to enjoy the sensation of settling in with a book and a mug of tea again.
This summer, during the final weeks of my pregnancy, I spent whole days sat in bed reading. I spent most of the day that I went into labour sat in the garden, enjoying some early autumn sunshine and finishing The Last of the Curlews. In the first week after my baby was born, I didn’t read at all (despite the ambitious stack of reading material I packed in my hospital bag!). I tried, but my tired, overwhelmed brain just couldn’t process words or ideas. Once the baby started to sleep more, however, I got quite a bit of reading done. I read books on my phone during feedings, and I listened to audiobooks as I paced up and down the living room at night, rocking the baby to sleep.
In the last three months of 2019, I finished 11 books; however, in the first three months of this year, I finished just five books. Not only has it gotten harder to read now that the baby’s feeding sessions are quicker, less sleepy affairs (and she’s interested in whatever object I’m holding), but also, this whole pandemic thing has really messed with my ability to focus. Now, when I go to read or listen to a book on my phone, my thoughts wander and I usually end up scrolling through news items instead. I have two half-read books and two half-played audiobooks on my phone, and I’ve started and abandoned countless others. At first, my inability to read frustrated me. I kept forcing myself to pick up a book, even when my mind was elsewhere.
Then I realised something revolutionary: it’s okay to just… not read.
It seems silly that it took me so long to realise this. But for most of my childhood and adult life, I’ve always had a book on the go. What’s more, in recent years, reading has taken on the status of a “productive activity”. Sure, some books feel like a tasty snack, but I’ve also taken on a lot of side projects that involved reading and reviewing, and even with the books that I devour purely for pleasure, I still have the notion, in the back of my mind, that reading is edifying and therefore justifiable. I set yearly reading goals and challenges, and I make TBR lists. I love adding my latest read to Goodreads and watching my virtual ‘Read’ shelf grow. The number stack up: proof of how productive I am.
The other night, in the wee hours, as I sat feeding the baby and lamenting the fact that I just couldn’t get into any of the books I was reading, I felt a longing to go back to my childhood bedroom. I wanted to climb up on my bed and read, not because it was productive or because I had a reading goal to reach, but simply for the joy of it. I wanted to go back to a time before reading was productive—before anything was done for the sake of productivity, for that matter: cycling was for fun, not exercise; food was either delicious or disgusting, nutrition be damned; and I could pass hours on activities that would seem useless and inane to me now, like colouring-in or organising my coin collection.
I can’t go back, of course; though I hope to share my love of reading with my daughter, and I hope that she will pass many afternoons lost in fictional worlds. For now, I’ll stop trying to force myself to read. And if I do read again, I hope it will be with a glimmer of childish joy.
N.B. Since drafting this post, I took a break from forcing myself to read and I actually managed to regain my reading mojo. Two books that have helped: Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm by Sarah Menkedick, and Still: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Motherhood by Emma Hansen. Both were tough books, especially Still, and I can’t say either filled me with childish joy, but they have both given my brain plenty to mull over. Some of those mullings may become a blog post in the near future.
N.B.B. A lot of the books I’ve read since finding out I was pregnant and since giving birth have been about motherhood and parenting, so I’ve made a blog post with a list of some of my favourites: Books about pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood.
N.B.B.B. In my last blog post, I wrote that I seem to have lost interest in birds and that I’m not really a birder anymore. I would still say I’m not a birder, BUT I have been noticing birds again (partly because they’re all returning for the spring that has yet to follow them)—just this morning I was stopped in my tracks by a woodpecker, pecking around on a log at the side of the path. I’ve also been seeing a lot of grackles and red-winged blackbirds on my daily morning walk: two birds that always wowed me with their, respectively, iridescent blue and patches of vivid red.