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Stress

Why Can’t I Focus on Books Right Now?

Mental fog? Stress? Technology? Changes in publishing? Yes.

Key points

  • One physical aftereffect of COVID is mental fog, or a drop in the ability to think or remember.
  • Nearly 60 percent of Americans have had COVID, and some might not have even known it.
  • While reading can seem like a cure for stress, if your brain can’t focus, you can’t follow a book.
Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

Call it a book slump, call it reader’s block, it happens to all avid book lovers at some point. We start a well-reviewed book or one recommended by a trusted friend. Ten pages in, we’re yet to be engaged. Yet to care about a character, a plotline, an anything. We try another. Same thing. No go. DNF: Did not finish.

It has its own hashtag on Twitter: #readersblock. People who normally devour books find themselves stopping soon after they start a title.

A friend, a former high school English teacher, recently explained her experience. She goes to the library, takes out a foot-high stack of books, and ends up returning them, unread except for the first few pages.

Slumps happen everywhere and for most everybody. But, for me, reading has always been a way to fight a slump. If I don't feel up to writing, painting, hiking, whatevering, I read.

But, like my friend, I hit a slump. I buy or check out books recommended by media reviewers or by my Goodreads friends and wonder what they saw in them. What’s going on?

Mental Fog

We’ve lived under a cloud of illness since March 2020 and, while the number of COVID cases and deaths has declined, and we’re benefitting from a vaccine, we’ve still shared a collective trauma. Plus, one physical aftereffect of COVID is mental fog, or a drop in the ability to think or remember. These cognitive and memory lapses can continue for many months after a COVID infection. According to the CDC, nearly 60 percent of Americans have had COVID, and some might not have even known it.

Stress

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

Add to that ongoing political upheaval worldwide and it’s a wonder any of us can get anything done. And, while reading can seem like a cure for stress, if your brain can’t focus, you can’t follow a book.

Tech Effects

Research on the effects of digital technology on our brains shows that too much scrolling can increase anxiety and reduce brain function. Most significantly, it can give us a form of ADHD, in which we want quick resolutions and immediate feedback. A book that doesn't grab us on the first page can fall prey to online reading that yields more satisfaction—we can become part of the conversation on a news article or a social media post. It’s immediate gratification with less effort.

Publishing Changes

Part of the issue with reading is that publishing has gotten narrower, with major publishing houses swallowing up smaller ones, leading to fewer voices published. We get major best-selling authors, celebrities, books with movie potential that are marketed aggressively, and some new literary stylists with inventive ways of creating storylines. The middle-of-the-road storytellers have too small an audience for publishers to bother with, so their work goes unpublished or undistributed. Worse, we have fewer and fewer editors who can make a story shine.

What to Do?

I’ve resorted to rereading old favorites: Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Ehrlich, Atul Gawande. Others suggest switching genres. Speculative fiction—fantasy, science fiction, magic realism—has found loyal audiences among those who like to imagine a completely different world than the one we inhabit. Dystopian books don't tick any of my current boxes—too much like reality—but they hit the mark for others. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has found new relevance, and The Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins have spawned a massive franchise.

But the best solution might be outside of books. Clear your brain with a walk in nature and an improved diet. Reduce alcohol (its consumption soared during the pandemic) and spend time with friends. Talking helps improve mental functioning, so get out and visit. Consider talk therapy.

Or join a book club. You might need to try several to find the right fit. The reading group I’ve belonged to for more than a decade got me out of my slump by acknowledging their own slumps. So we devised a book list that suits our mental capacity right now—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 going. And it’s heartening to find a kindred soul who also just doesn't get it. A touch of confirmation bias can be good for the psyche.

We react to books differently at different times. We never read the same book twice. When I first picked up The Overstory, by Richard Powers, I was turned off by the multiple stories at the beginning and shut the book. Not my thing. DNF. But climate activists I follow on social media kept talking about the book, so I tried it again a few months later and was rewarded with what has become one of my favorites—remarkable, almost magical in its depth and grasp. 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 keep going. She did, and for months afterward, her social media posts included references to the book. She saw it everywhere.

My books also live with me, and I live a fuller life because of them. Thankfully, my slump is broken. I reread three books in Louise Penny’s inspector Gamache series, Bury Your Dead, A Beautiful Mystery, and How the Light Gets In, then read Sara Miles’ thoughtful book on practicing active Christianity through feeding the hungry, Take This Bread. That re-energized my reader’s brain and I’m happily back to what I love, savoring that quiet contemplative time with just me and my book.

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

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