I don’t know about you but I've been finding it hard to focus on a book during much of these pandemic years. My love of literature has been a personality-defining trait since childhood so to suddenly lose all interest in one of the things I held so dear felt more earth-shattering than I expected.
Of course, I didn't give up. I bought new books but didn't get far before I went off them. I tried sitting at the table, reading as I ate lunch, but my attention soon wandered. I tried reading before bed but by that point I was usually tired enough to put the book down after skimming a page or two.
I thought about reading when I woke up, but laughed off the concept. I’d like to be the type of person that has a productive morning routine. You know the sort of thing: wake up at 6am, do some exercise before having a shower, get some household chores out of the way, whip up a breakfast that looks like it’s fallen from the pages of an aspirational cookbook, maybe even go in for a spot of meditation before starting the workday in earnest.
That I’m talking about it in these wistful tones should be enough of an indicator that this was far from reality. I'd wake up before 7am but unlike the Instagram posts that haunt me every time I open the app – videos of perky, motivated people clad in fitness gear, extolling the virtues of waking at 5:30am to engage in movement, meditation and manifesting, all done with a green smoothie on the side, natch – I'd just lie in bed until forced to emerge, bedraggled and limp.
On an average day earlier this year, you might have caught me drowsing to the insistent tones of the Today Programme or, more likely, looking at my phone. Neither is a particularly energising way to start the day but I daresay we’ve all been there.
Reading the writer and psychologist Adam Grant’s New York Times article on “languishing” – a feeling of stagnation that has been the defining state for many during the pandemic – hit a nerve. I don’t think I’m the only one who has been in a reading slump for much of the past two years and Grant’s article seemed to account for the reason. No wonder I felt indifferent to reading in a way that I never had before.
In my desperation to overcome the dreaded reading rut, I took drastic measures (well, drastic for me), forcing myself out of a slumber as soon as my alarm went off and vowing to spend at least 15 minutes reading every morning. I made it easier for myself by turning to my comfort reads: classic crime or other escapism-inducing fiction with plots so gripping that they're hard to put down – even if it means waking up early to get your fix.
The morning after I first picked up Terry Pratchett’s Sourcery, I found myself reading for much longer than the 15 minutes I'd planned. I was reminded of the much-missed feeling of reading something so engrossing that you want to ignore everything else.
Much like days that started with social media scrolling, time went by quicker than expected but unlike those other mornings, I found myself getting out of bed with a spring in my step, feeling strangely refreshed and eager to start the day. I was happy to be finding a way back to that great love of reading and even happier to start the day with something that didn’t, to me, seem a waste of time or a shortcut to feeling dissatisfied with myself in the way that phone time sometimes does.
I raced through Sourcery and moved first onto Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age before picking up The Wych Elm by Tana French and then The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller. And so, I spent the following months sticking to my morning routine of reading rather than scrolling. Unlike other harder to embed habits (no matter how good they might be for you), this was a very easy one – I don't have to get out of my cosy bed, and reaching over to pick up a book is small enough of an effort that even I can cope with it.
In Grant’s article, he describes the state of “flow” as a potential antidote for languishing. It's the feeling of being so immersed in an activity that everything else just melts away. Remember early-stage pandemic life when people were turning to jigsaws, embroidery or any number of other hands-on hobbies? Well, getting lost between the pages of a book counts too.
I didn’t begin my morning reading habit with any worthy intentions but starting the day with a book is a small win that has reminded me of the bigger picture: why I love reading. I might not have quite reached the dizzy heights of those lycra-clad Instagrammers' morning routines just yet, but it’s working for me.
Tips for finding your flow
If you've been in a reading slump too, try these tips to kickstart the habit.
- Go back to old favourites: In times of uncertainty, we need all the comfort we can get. Return to tried and tested favourites you know you'll love re-reading.
- Start your day with a book: It's hard to focus on a story when you've got a thousand things whizzing around your brain so even 10 minutes with a book, straight after you wake up, could help you start the day on the right foot.
- Cordon off some time: Set aside a regular chunk of time, be it daily, weekly or whatever frequency works best, just for reading. These boundaries will help you get into a state of flow and fall in love with reading again.
More books I've enjoyed starting the day with
Image: Alexandra Francis / Penguin