How I Lost My Desire To Read

(Jorge Carvajal for The Washington Post)

Katherine May is the author of three books, most recently “Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age.”

A year into the pandemic, I realized I could no longer read.

It wasn’t a sudden occurrence. I did not read at the beginning of the crisis, because I was occupied with other things. I was busy home-schooling my son and cramming paid work into odd corners of the day, trying to muster enthusiasm for board games and feeble kitchen discos that made the dog bark in distress.

But most of the time, I was trapped in a loop of checking and checking and checking. Was everything okay? Were my people safe? I wasn’t entirely sure. There was no way to tell. I would have to check again.

I blithely assumed reading would be mine to reclaim when the right moment arrived. But when I finally looked toward my bookshelves, I found that the desire to read had evaporated. Not a single title on my teetering to-be-read pile appealed. If I opened a book, my eyes glanced off the page as if the words were resistant to my attention. I felt physically unable to intercept the language.

It’s hard to fathom the loss this represented for me: not just a hobby but a whole identity, a way of moving through the world. Bookish is a blood type; it is a nationality, and I was exiled. The guilt was immense.

What did it mean to be a writer who would not — could not — read other people’s work? New titles kept arriving at my door unbidden, bookmarked with enthusiastic notes from editors or cards from grateful-in-advance authors, and I would feel like a traitor as I piled them up around my desk. I thought I could nudge myself into action by allowing these incursions into my workspace, but instead, I was just blocking out the light. Every now and then, there would be a landslide of unread books, and I would simply pile them up again, my own shameful fortress.

When the world began to reopen, I didn’t want to go out. The outside held a lot of fear — but then it always had. During the interminable lockdowns here in England, I had seen clearly for the first time that “normal” meant heading out repeatedly into situations that left me feeling enervated and overwhelmed.

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As I canceled appointments, I joked to friends that someone had installed an invisible speed bump outside my front door. It was not insurmountable, but it made leaving the house that little bit harder. Most of the time, venturing out didn’t seem worth the energy.

What I did instead was tidy. While we were all stuck inside, my house had begun to feel like a cave, and I needed to shed the bones that littered its floor. I started with my office, where the shelves were literally drooping in the middle, crammed with vertical stacks of books three piles deep. Books that I wasn’t reading and, if I was entirely honest with myself, didn’t want to read.

I had always coveted a big personal library. It seemed like the hallmark of a person who thought seriously about the world, a display of my learning. Now it felt like a display of insecurity. What were all these books, except calling cards for my vanity? I was keeping novels that I didn’t even like the first time around and hoarding titles that I couldn’t face reading in the first place.

Fortunately, the charity shops had reopened and were asking for donations. I sorted through every single book, producing clouds of dust. Soon, the floor was a mosaic of unloved reads. I felt lighter.

My whole TBR pile was shunted into the donation heap. There were probably some great books in there; I didn’t know. They deserved more than this. Those books had become a clog in the flow of my reading, and I needed to find fluidity. I reminded myself that it was not my personal responsibility to make sure every book gets read.

The purge didn’t send me running to the nearest bookstore to start again, but by then, I didn’t expect it to. I had always seen my bookishness as a marker of my love of solitude, but lockdown showed me that reading was fundamentally social, even if the bulk of it happened alone. Without the noise around it — the casual recommendations shared over coffee; the passionate denouncements that happen only outside the polite world of #bookstagram — it had become hard to sustain. I needed people in my life.

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In truth, I had never actually been unable to read, not in the physical sense. When I stopped to notice the reading I was still doing without thinking — the articles and social media posts that tantalized me enough to lose half an hour — I could see my desire in action. I was craving new meanings that spoke to this moment, conversation pieces, even gossip. Anything that felt like connection rather than distance.

I allowed my attention to be drawn again, rather than constantly forcing it toward things I thought I should be reading. I coaxed back my appetite with bite-size pieces, essays and chapters, stories and poems. I reread old favorites. I reminded myself to play.

The urge to read whole books came back slowly. It started with nonfiction — that same drive to understand what’s happening — and gradually extended to novels again. To get there, I needed new rules.

I’ve learned to stop treating books as commodities, to temper my greed in this land of abundance and to resist the performative bulk consumption of books that happens online. My reading is a personal matter, not a trinket to display. Sometimes, I don’t read at all. But mostly, I read just enough to take it back out with me into the world.

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