If you’re having a hard time reading during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not the only one. Ever since the pandemic broke out in my state, it’s been almost impossible for me to just sit down and read. I have plenty of books around. I even bought myself a bunch of new books (something I never do) to support some of my favorite indie bookstores. But have I read any of those shiny new books? Nope.
I’m honestly not even sure why it’s been so hard for me to focus on reading. I’m an introvert anyway. I also have a seasonal job, so being home alone for part of the year, reading, writing, and baking, is just normal life for me. But despite how grateful I am to be safe and healthy right now, it’s hard to ignore the anxiety, sadness, anger, and overwhelm I wake up with every day.
Usually when I’m feeling overwhelmed and heartbroken over the state of the world or something going on in my own life, I turn to books. Books are the one thing I know I can always count on to distract me, transport me off this infuriating planet, or cheer me up. So what happens when I find myself reading the same paragraph over and over again, unable to focus? Or when I sit down, determined to read, only to find myself opening my computer and looking at the news, again?
There is not one right way to read. There is certainly not one right way to read during a pandemic. And not reading is also perfectly fine. Having a reading slump does not jettison you out of the book lovers club. You’re not doing something wrong if you’re not reading.
But for me, and maybe for other readers out there, not reading hurts. Not reading feels icky and wrong and does not help my mental health. Not being able to read at a time when I desperately need comfort is exhausting and frustrating and makes me want to cry. I honestly don’t think I would have gotten through the last three weeks without books. And right now, listening to books is the only way I can read them. I’ve only been able to finish two print/digital books in the last three weeks. But I have read—wait for it—14 audiobooks since March 17. Audiobooks have saved me.
I don’t know what it is about my brain that’s allowing me to focus on audiobooks but not other forms of reading, but that’s how it is right now. I listen while walking the dog, doing puzzles, and cooking. But I’ve also been curling up on the couch with a blanket and an audiobook. This is something I never do; usually I keep my hands occupied while I listen. I haven’t been able to sit down and read print books, but I have been able to sit down and listen. It is an extraordinary gift.
Audiobooks have not only allowed me to continue reading throughout this crisis, but they’ve allowed me to continue reading in the way that makes me happiest. I like a little bit of everything in my reading life—science fiction, literary fiction, romance, memoirs, comics, poetry. But over the past three weeks, the only physical/digital books I’ve been able to focus on long enough to finish have been romances. I love romance, and I’m grateful to have the genre to turn to right now. But I don’t thrive on long stretches of reading only one genre. I like variety.
There’s no way I’d be able to focus on a book of poetry right now if I wasn’t listening to it. In fact, I started a poetry book in early March that I haven’t picked it up in weeks. But I did listen to The Death of Sitting Bear by N. Scott Momaday on audio, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Win.
I love complicated novels that make me think. Forget trying to actually open one of those up right now. But listening? No problem. I listened to Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom, a magical and layered trans coming-of-age story. Then I listened to Claude McKay’s Romance in Marseille, a book written in the 1930s but unpublished until now. My eyes would have glazed over reading it. But my ears took it in with delight.
In the past weeks, I’ve listened to books as different from each other as books can get, which is how I like it. I followed a comfort audio reread of The Martian by Andy Weir with The Lady’s Handbook For Her Mysterious Illness by Sarah Ramey, the harrowing story of Ramey’s decades-long struggle to get doctors to recognize her chronic illness.
I listened to the new full cast recording of Charlotte’s Web, which is now one of my favorite audiobooks ever.I laughed out loud listening to lesbian comedian Cameron Esposito’s hilarious and tender memoir, Save Yourself. Now I’m listening to a fantastic collection of essays about writers’ relationships with their mothers, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About by Michele Filgate.
All of this reading is keeping me grounded. All of these different books are doing the things books usually do for me: challenge me, surprise me, delight me, comfort me. At a time when stability and normalcy are hard to come by, I am eternally grateful that audiobooks have allowed me to retain some in my reading life.
If you, like me, are finding that you can’t read in the ways you normally do, I hope you’re able to make the same adjustments I’ve made. Maybe that’s turning to audiobooks, or giving yourself permission to reread comfort books, or remembering that it’s okay if you only want to read comics right now. Whatever you’re doing, whether it’s embracing a new way of reading or taking a break from reading to cook or color or snuggle the dog—you’re doing great.
Need some inspiration for how to keep reading in your life during the pandemic? Why not try listening to one of these bookish podcasts? Rachel has some great suggestions for bookish was to stay connected during quarantine. Maybe you’ll find the perfect book on this list of what Rioters are reading while social distancing. And if all else fails, Dolly Parton is here to read you (and your kiddos) bedtime stories.
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