Reading during lockdown: Expectations vs. Reality

When lockdown started throughout the world, many keen readers were secretly excited. Finally! All that reading during lockdown would help to plough through that tottering pile of books on the bedside table!

The reality has been very different. I know I’m not alone when I say that my to-be-read pile hasn’t gotten any smaller over the past ten months. I’ve actually abandoned several novels half way through.

It’s like reading is no longer a pleasure. But why?

Research shows reading has increased during lockdown – or has it?

Research by Nielsen Book shows that reading in the UK has increased since March when initial restrictions came into force. For many respondents, they said that they had more time for reading. Others said that they wanted to stay entertained and so turned to books. Book buying was down – obviously, because of store closures – but library borrowing was way up. According to Libraries Connected, there was a 146% increase in ebooks borrowed from libraries in the period March to August.

So is it just me who isn’t reading as much?

Another survey from Aston University shows a slightly different picture. Yes, people have more time for reading in terms of frequency, but they have found it harder to concentrate. So readers weren’t able to read as much in terms of volume.

This is definitely what I’ve found too. I’ll sit down to read a book, but I just can’t engage. I assumed I had unfortunately picked a bad bunch of novels – and maybe I had. But mostly I just can’t quite immerse myself in the story.

Both the Nielsen and the Aston research show that when people are reading during lockdown, they are turning to comfort books. For a lot of people that means crime and whodunnits. It makes sense; in uncertain times, we want the certainty of a neat tied-up ending where the bad guys are killed or go to jail and the good guys ride off into the sunset. You don’t want to wallow in literary obscurity when you’re faced with incompetent politicians and overcrowded hospitals.

For me, comfort reading would usually mean classics, like Dickens and Trollope. So perhaps my main mistake has been trying to read the ‘wrong sorts’ of books. I realise now that I should abandon the contemporary and literary fiction I’ve been trying to read, and turn back to old faves.

Anxiety makes it hard to read, even for avid book lovers

Back in August, the journalist Caroline Crampton wrote about how she had struggled to read over the last six months. She had always taken reading for granted, an act as ‘unconscious as breathing.’ But instead she found herself unable to get into books at all. It’s not that she didn’t want to read, but rather that she thought she should be doing something worthwhile.

This resonated with me so hard. This is why I struggle to watch movies or TV shows – and, lately, to read books. There’s always this underlying feeling that there’s something better I could be doing with my time. I cannot articulate what that other activity is, nor have I, in six months of listlessly turning pages, chanced across it. I just know that reading that book, in that moment, is not it.

I think those of us who love to read, or who write for a living, might be feeling this more keenly during this period. The sense that all of this – sweeps hand around to encompass all of it, ALL OF IT – is just so much wasted time. Even reading.

It’s like a supercharged form of ennui.

This ennui, or anxiety, or despair, makes it more difficult to focus, to sink into a story and let it wash over us or transport us away to a new world. As much as we want to run away right now, we know we really can’t. We have too many responsibilities to face, the world is getting harsher, and we turn to safe, homely, concrete things like baking bread and learning new skills.

You are more than your reading identity

I’ve read several articles about reading during lockdown, with some saying that there’s more time for reading, and others saying that it has become more difficult. I think both are true; we have more time to read, but do so with difficulty.

Your level of anxiety plays a large role in whether or not reading during lockdown is as enjoyable as it was before. Even if on the surface you don’t think you’re anxious, the proof is right there in the fact that you’re struggling.

Another aspect is your own identity as a reader.

I love reading books. It’s part of my identity. I read at least 40 books a year. But the fact that I know how many books a year I read points to the problem; it’s a competition with myself. Like many people, I track all my books in Goodreads and each year I set a reading goal. This is a number, by the way, not a goal about quality.

Each time I pick up a book, I’m not doing it just to hit my Goodreads goal, but I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a small consideration somewhere in my mind. I have always been a reader and so I strive to maintain that identity; I am a reader, so I must read.

But actually I think it’s okay if we, as readers, sometimes take some time off. If I don’t finish reading a book this week, I’m still a reader. If I only manage to read one in January, I’m still a reader. If I don’t read any books at all for the next six months, I’m still a reader.

If you’re finding it hard to read books during lockdown, don’t fret. You are still a reader. You will read again and enjoy it and love it and advocate passionately for all things reading. Taking some time off to let your mind go to pasture is okay. Indulging in reality TV or action movies is okay. Doing finger painting with your kids rather than storytime is okay. Reading is not a skill you will lose. It is not a passion that will fade. This is just a moment where your mind needs to do other things.

So if your to-be-read pile has remained alarmingly large, and ever growing, during lockdown, stop stressing about it. As if you need something else to stress about. Take the time you need and when you’re ready, the perfect book will present itself.

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Nat Newman

Nat Newman is an award-winning writer of short stories, content, podcasts, feature articles, drunk text messages and, soon, a novella.

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