During the last quarter of 2019 and the first half of 2020 I was on something of a reading binge. I realized long ago that I am not the kind of person who always has a book on the go, the kind of person who fits a regular amount of reading into most days, weeks or months. I can go months without picking up a book. I have occasionally gone whole years without reading an entire book from start to finish. 1995 was like that. I couldn’t even work my way through the Saul Bellow novella “Dangling Man” (140 pages in all), even though it’s an old favourite. I had read dozens of books in 1994, I got back into the habit in 1996, and in the months after my mother died in 1997 I went on a proper reading binge, a book a day for much of the spring and summer.
In September 2019 my most recent binge began with yet another re-read of Douglas Coupland’s “All Families are Psychotic”, another long-time favourite, and incorporated the most recent Booker Prize winners and books that I had dipped into but never managed to read from cover to cover, like Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook”, Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” and Hilary Mantel’s “A Place of Greater Safety”. I even managed to re-read “The Divine Comedy” and “Ulysses”. Things slowed down last summer, just the odd Agatha Christie and John le Carré (neither of whom I had read before 2019), and finally Marc Freeman’s “Untold History” of the American sitcom “Modern Family” in early October. And then nothing, just like 1995.
I am not alone. Two recent newspaper items have highlighted other people’s difficulties with their reading habits. The Guardian’s Review magazine has a regular feature called “Books That Made Me” in which writers reveal “The book I am currently reading”, “The book that changed my life”, “The book I couldn’t finish” and so on. In this piece from last November Nigella Lawson’s response to the first of these headings was:
“I’m suffering from crippling reader’s block. I had months of it during the earliest months of the first long lockdown, then recovered, but now, since about a week ago, find myself back in another bout. I don’t know what’s worse about it: the despair or the overwhelming sense of alienation.”
“Crippling reader’s block” is not a phrase I have ever used myself, but it’s how she describes her latest bout, just one week in. By that measure, my condition is much more severe, stretching back over three months. Fortunately I don’t have a sense of either “the despair” or “the overwhelming sense of alienation”. Not about reading anyway.
John Crace, the Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer, has also commented on what Nigella Lawson calls “reader’s block”. Over the last 20 years he has read hundreds of books and captured their essence wittily and succinctly in his “Digested Read” pieces. In case you haven’t read any, this summation of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Antifragile” is a good place to start, or just browse the series as a whole here. It’s a real treat, but the most recent piece is from January 2019. In choosing his “Book of the year” in this piece, from December 2020, he explains:
“Since the first coronavirus lockdown [March 2020] my concentration has been shot to pieces and I have been unable to complete any book. So instead I am nominating Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light as the book I would most like to have finished.”
In the last three months I have flicked through a few titles, wondering what to read or re-read next, but have managed no more than 20 pages from any of them. Last year’s Booker Prize winner “Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart is sat next to Ben McIntyre’s “The Spy and the Traitor” and Cash Carraway’s “Skint Estate”, which I have started more than once without getting very far. It upsets me too much. I read the first chapter of the first Harry Potter book, but unlike tens of millions of other readers have not progressed any further.
So, what am I doing instead? There have been many hours spent online reading about the American Presidential Election and its aftermath, and even more hours spent watching news stories about it all. There’s live sport on TV of course, even more than usual (virtually every Premier League game has been broadcast on one of our channels since the season began in September). As recorded repeatedly during the autumn, I have devoted dozens of hours to sitcoms, especially “Modern Family” (all 11 series of it).
And now here we are in mid-January. Am I three months into “a crippling bout of reader’s block”, as Nigella would put it, or is this simply a pause that will end as easily as it began? Will I just pick up a book and, you know, read it? It sounds easy enough.