Nov 6, 2012

Reading Slump

Open Books Store in Chicago. If you haven't been there, you're a ninny. “You have impressive powers of concentration,” said the woman at the fountain in the park. I blinked at her. “You know, with all these kids running around.” I laughed. The kids were white noise, like the fountain and the cicadas. The kids were, to be honest, appreciated. If they were there, I was more likely to concentrate, to keep up the appearance of being the girl who sits by the fountain and reads.

Once the kids left, I took my book and walked the path around using the motion of my walking to force myself to concentrate on the words. It’s a small park with a lot of low-hanging branches. I got really good at ducking. It was almost like exercise, I imagine.

The reason that I was so intent on my walking and reading was that, for about 18 months, I suffered from a reading slump. I couldn’t concentrate, I DNF’d a dozen books, and I didn’t particularly enjoy anything I managed to finish.

I don’t really know what the issue was. I’ve never gone a protracted amount of time without being able to read.

Eventually, I complained to a friend, and he did what friends are supposed to do in such circumstances: he lent me a really good book. I finished the book on an airplane, and bought a second on my layover. I finished that one and started a third book. This doesn’t sound particularly revolutionary, but I hadn’t done anything like that in a very long time. It felt great.

Since then, I’ve been slowly building up my tolerance.

I would classify myself as mostly cured. It’s been probably six months since I’ve felt any sort of dread about reading, so I’m going to say I’m doing ok. As such, I thought I might make a list of the things I’ve done to help me return to being a reader in the hopes that it might help anyone else out there who is going through a similar trial.

1. Social Reading
If I were to list my favorite discoveries of 2012, the list would probably look like this: 1) Peanut Butter Shakes, 2) Book Clubs.

Book clubs provide this unique environment where you sit in a room with a bunch of people you like (preferably) and eat snacks (essential) and everyone must talk about the book which you have all read (usually).

Those are the rules. I didn’t even make them up. I know.

It brings me this feeling of glee that I haven’t had since I was six and made all activities into clubs. Back then I had to rig elections and make myself president in order to make rules that good. (Side note: both neighbor kids would have made terrible presidents. I was being kind.)

Book clubs provide a gentle accountability. No one’s going to throw a heavy volume at your head if you don’t finish your reading, but if you don’t read, you miss out on fun discussion. Through the magic of book clubs, I’ve finished two longish books this year that I might not have finished otherwise.

2. “Social” Reading
One of the other great joys of this year has been my very serious implementation of GoodReads. I followed Roommate’s lead and started listing my books by years read, and this created a small obsession. (It was a large obsession for a few weeks. Don’t worry, I have everything cataloged back to eighth grade. I stopped there for my own sanity and also because I was getting worried text messages from GR friends.)

The act of adding a book to my list and watching my 2012 numbers grow is extremely satisfying.

3. Book Polygamy
When I was little, I abhorred the thought of reading more than one book at a time. I didn’t think it was possible to love more than one book at a time, or to give them the attention they deserved.

This is silly: I’m not sitting on my couch, left eye on Kavalier and Clay, right eye on Travels with Charley. That would give me a headache. What I am doing is reading K&C at a pace that works with my book group, and TwC between times. It also gives me the freedom to get bored with something I’m reading, to set it aside, and to come back to it later.

4. Audiobook Listening
Listening to audiobooks is the grown-up version of having bed-time stories read to you. Then, you used bed time stories to put off the very unpleasant task of going to sleep. Now you can apply that same principle to make just about any activity better. I like to listen to audiobooks while washing dishes, driving in traffic, and cleaning out terrifying closets.

During my reading slump, audiobooks were just about the only way I could make myself pay attention to a story. I am indebted to them.

5. Reading Aloud
Here’s a secret: I really like reading aloud. To myself. Alone. I know this sounds incredibly narcissistic. Possibly weird. However. It’s true. I don’t like reading poetry any other way. If there’s a book I really love, sometime I have to read it aloud just so I can experiences it through more than once sense. I’ve also found that I can pay better attention when I’m physically engaged in the book (this is sort of the same as the walking and reading thing I talked about earlier.)

If you don’t believe me, rent your self a little apartment, make some tea, and try it. It’s probably my favorite way to spend a Sunday evening.

There you have it: Those are the five things I did to end my terrible, terrible slump.  I hope they can save you from the same.

Also, now I’m curious. Have you ever had a terrible, horrible reading slump? How’d you get over it?


That photo was taken at Open Books Store in Chicago. It’s one of my favorite places. You should go.



  • The only slump I have had was when I could not work reading into my schedule which has not happened very much. I usually am reading a couple of books at a time. I try to keep their topics separate so as to not mix up the stories. I also believe although I like to finish what I start there is no law and no one will come lock you up if you do not finish a book. Why waste your time on trash if you determine that is what it is. It took some doing but I got over the “I ve got to finish that book since I started it”.

  • Dearest Staircase Wit– I, your newest and proudest subscriber, humbly submit that parallel to the reading slump can exist a similar malady known as the “writing slump.” Case in point (“Staircase” in point?): archives reveal there have been FOUR MONTHS this year during which you penned (pounded?) no post. No post at all! I’m astounded your brain did not implode from the pressure of the accumulated wit. The discovery of these prolonged posting gaps delights me to no end because it means I DID NOT MISS MONTHS OF WEEKS OF BLOGS LIKE I THOUGHT!

  • Jesse, I love this post! My usual technique for trying to get out of one is to spend a bunch of money at Amazon or an actual bookstore and hope something sticks….

  • Pssssshhhh, that is not true, I have thrown many heavy tomes at your head at book group. Mostly because it’s fun. Also, you should read aloud to me more.

  • Hey Jesse,
    This your cousin who is going through a frustrating school moment and needs a distraction…Brilliant writing as I come to expect from you. I have had many reading slumps over my years, mostly because of I force myself to read dull non-fiction books (to keep up with my intellectual status.)

    My strategy is to go on a non-book media fast! Ignoring all tv, internet, etc., you simply become so bored that a book is your only option for sanity. Drastic I know, but one must take the medicine to return to the healthy state of a bookworm.

    Boy do I look disciplined reading over my post…

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