Why can’t I focus on books right now?

Source: Patricia Prijatel

Call it a book slump, call it reading block, it happens to every avid book lover at some point. We start with a well-reviewed book or one recommended by a trusted friend. After ten pages, we’re not engaged yet. But caring about a character, a plot, anything. We’ll try another one. same thing. no-go DNF: Not finished.

It has its own hashtag on Twitter: #readersblock. People who normally devour books give up soon after starting a title.

A friend, a former high school English teacher, recently shared her experience. She goes to the library, pulls out a foot-deep stack of books, and returns them unread except for the first few pages.

Burglaries happen everywhere and for almost everyone. But for me, reading has always been a way to combat a slump. When I don’t feel like writing, painting, hiking, whatever, I read.

But, like my friend, I hit a slump. I buy or look at books recommended by media critics or my Goodreads friends and wonder what they saw in them. What’s happening?

mental fog

We’ve been living under a cloud of disease since March 2020, and while the number of COVID cases and deaths has fallen and we’re benefiting from a vaccine, we’ve still shared a collective trauma. Also, a physical after-effect of COVID is mental fog or a decline in the ability to think or remember. These cognitive and memory lapses can persist for many months after COVID infection. Almost 60 percent of Americans have had COVID, according to the CDC, and some may not have even known it.


But the actual sickness is only part of the problem – the chaos and division that the pandemic has increased are huge stressors. According to Harvard Medical School, even those who have never had COVID can suffer from pandemic-related stress, which can lead to brain inflammation with symptoms of mental and physical exhaustion.

Add to this the ongoing political upheaval around the world and it is a wonder that each of us can achieve something. And while reading can seem like a cure for stress, you can’t follow a book if your brain can’t focus.

tech effects

Research into the effects of digital technology on our brain shows that too much scrolling can increase anxiety and impair brain function. Most importantly, it can give us a form of ADHD where we want quick fixes and instant feedback. A book that doesn’t grab us on the first page can fall victim to online reading that brings more satisfaction — we can become part of the conversation via a news article or social media post. It’s instant gratification with less effort.

publish changes

Part of the problem with reading is that publishing has become tighter, with large publishers swallowing up smaller ones, resulting in fewer voices being published. We’re getting big-selling authors, celebrities, books with movie potential that are aggressively marketed, and some new literary stylists with inventive ways of creating storylines. The mediocre storytellers have too small an audience for publishers to cater to, so their work goes unpublished or uncirculated. Worse, we’re running short of editors who can make a story shine.

What to do?

I went back to old favorites: Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Ehrlich, Atul Gawande. Others suggest switching genres. Speculative fiction – fantasy, science fiction, magical realism – has found a loyal audience among those who like to imagine a world very different from the one in which we live. Dystopian books don’t tick any of my current boxes – they’re too close to reality – but they hit the mark with others. Margaret Atwoods The story of the maid has found new relevance, and The hunger Games Books by Suzanne Collins have spawned a huge franchise.

But the best solution might lie outside of books. Cleanse your brain with a nature walk and improved diet. Cut down on alcohol consumption (consumption rose sharply during the pandemic) and spend time with friends. Talking helps improve mental performance, so get out there and visit it. Consider talk therapy.

Or join a book club. You may have to try several to find the right fit. The reading group I have been a part of for more than a decade pulled me out of my crisis by acknowledging their own crisis. So we put together a list of books that suits our current mental capacity—some light reading, some thoughtful discussion material, some old standards, and a few challenges. Listening to why others appreciate a book can gently get your cognitive juices pumping. And it’s heartening to find a kindred spirit who just doesn’t get it either. A touch of confirmation bias can be good for the psyche.

We react differently to books at different times. We never read the same book twice. When I first took off the overstory, by Richard Powers, I was put off by the many stories at the beginning and closed the book. not my thing DNF. But climate activists I follow on social media kept talking about the book, so I tried again a few months later and was rewarded with what has become one of my favorites – remarkable, almost magical in its depth and its Understanding. I recommended it to my book club and one member had the same initial reaction – she just couldn’t get past the beginning. We told her to move on. She did, and for months afterward, her social media posts featured references to the book. She saw it everywhere.

My books live with me too, and I live a fuller life through them. Luckily my burglary broke. I reread three books in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, Bury your dead, a beautiful mystery and As the light comes inthen read Sara Miles’ thoughtful book on practicing active Christianity by feeding the hungry, take this bread. This reinvigorated my reader’s brain and I am happily back to what I love and enjoying this quiet contemplative time just with me and my book.

To find a therapist, please visit Psychology Today’s Therapy Directory.

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