How to beat boredom with books

Natasha Savicheva / Penguin

Every book-lover I know, myself included, started lockdown with the same hubris: they were going to read, man. Read the epics. They went and bought War and Peace; Infinite Jest; all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. ‘I’m stuck at home,’ they said. ‘I’ll have time.’

Then, let’s be honest, we didn’t. We scrolled our phones endlessly, hoping for some clarity on the Covid-19 situation. We engaged in endless Zoom calls, both for work and to stay connected socially, via afternoon drinks catch-ups and online pub quizzes. We grieved; it became hard to concentrate. We baked bread. Fair enough.

Then, sometime in late April, there was a shift. Anxiety turned to listlessness; the haze cleared somewhat, and after one too many three-ingredient meals with 25-dish washups, and yet another binge of the extended-cut Lord of the Rings trilogy… we got bored.

This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. For most of us, it’s been a long time since we’ve been bored – maybe even since we were children, when our minds were expanding so relentlessly that the world couldn’t seem to keep up. But slowly, our minds are becoming hungry again. Books can lead the way, if you’ll let them. Here are some tips.

Listen to them out loud

It might seem like we’re taking baby steps here, but for many, this was a crucial step back towards delving into books. Early in lockdown, when our ability to focus was at its lowest, and our need to connect at its highest, we found solace in reading aloud, a lost art that hearkens way back beyond story time to the oral traditions that predate the written word.

Read something simple – a single magazine article, a short intro chapter to a beloved novel – out loud to yourself or, if you have lockdown company, a loved one. It’s hard to be bored when your voice is sweeping around the room, emoting like Marianne Dashwood or gruffly barking orders like Captain Ahab.

If you’re less the performer type, or you’re self-isolating, audiobooks are your storytelling best friend. Be the audience to Yuval Noah Harari’s learned, dignified baritone, or let Elisabeth Moss pull you into the dystopian world of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Reading out loud

Illustration: Josie Portillo / Try reading out loud

Start a virtual book club

Like a novel that just wasn’t for you but came as a birthday present from a very nice friend (bless them), sometimes we read because we have to. That’s not a bad thing: I’ve found some of my favourite books by starting a book I felt obligated to read and didn't like at frist. Which is all to say: start a book club. Even if it’s just you and one other person, obligate yourself to a book. You might love it! Or you might not; either way, you have a pint or a glass of wine with mates at the end. Talk about the characters! The themes! The imagery! How bored you were! Either way: you expanded your mind, and you pushed boredom back another day. You 1, lockdown 0.

Get into to novellas and short stories

There’s nothing like finishing a book to make you hungry for more, and now is not the time to deny yourself the pleasure of triumphantly turning over that back cover, or drinking in the last line of that short story (here are fifty classics to get you started) or novella (here are some you can finish in a weekend). Read something brief! You’re allowed! It might just be that you’re bored by the monotony of a very long book, or feeling discouraged. War and Peace will still be there when you’re done your shorter read, and you’ll be absolutely primed for it.

Play some book games

There are options beyond online pub quizzes – even book-themed one. Take Ex Libris, a favourite game among readerly and writerly types. Each round, a host issues the title, author and plot summary of a real book they own to the other players; based on that information, each of the players tries to write a plausible opening line of the book, and submits it to the host; the host reads out the fake lines and the book’s real opener, in no particular order, and the other players try to guess which one is real. Players get a point for every guess their line draws, and another if they correctly guess the real first line. Take turns hosting on Zoom.

You’ll be surprised by your friends’ writing acumen. You also will not be bored.

Colour coded bookshelf

Why not colour code your bookshelf?

Rearranging your book shelves

Getting desperate? You’ve read all your books. No more games. It’s time to rearrange those shelves, my friend. By colour; by genre; by author; by… publication date?? Get crazy. This is your time. It will give you something to do for an afternoon, plus it can leave you with the perfect Zoom background. And if all this fails, well, maybe it's time to give War and Peace just one more try.

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