Reading in a Pandemic Karen Swallow Prior

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Confession: I’m a lifelong avid reader who has, not one, but two, professions centered on books—one as an English professor and the other as an author (who writes mainly about reading). And yet, even with all this “extra” time at home, I’m having trouble reading during this pandemic.

Sure, I can blame it on the grueling transition from classroom teaching to something they call online “teaching.” Or I can blame it on the time and energy it takes to plan and conduct less frequent trips to the store to shop for two households now. (My parents are elderly, and I’ve forbidden them to go themselves.) Or I can blame it on the lure of the Netflix binge. But I know that the problem isn’t my particular circumstances. It is, rather, what I think most of us are struggling with right now: Distractedness. Vanishing routines. Lack of focus. The draw of the ever-changing news cycle. Worry.

However, I’m happy to report that three weeks into this (I may have lost count), I’ve finally been able to read a little bit of a good book. It’s not Dostoevsky, but it is fine writing (Willa Cather, for the record). And I can almost feel my brain sighing in relief as I steady the volume with both hands (rather than the solo act needed to scroll on my phone), relax into the slow rhythm of taking minutes to turn a page (rather than the seconds to scan a Twitter feed), and surrender to the mindfulness required to delight in the genius of a sentence like this: “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

Really (I need to remind myself), there’s almost always time to read more. Many (perhaps most) of us just have to spend less time doing something else with even the little bit of leisure time we have. If reading feels too hard at times (especially times like this), remember that’s because it is. The part of our brain we use to do slow, immersive, reflective reading, research shows, is a different part from the one we use to do all that other kind of reading. We have to train (or re-train, as the case may be) our minds how to do it and do it well. But it’s worth the effort.

If you want to spend more quality time with quality books during these strange times, but feel overwhelmed, choose a less whelming work. Read a bit of poetry by George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, or Ada Limon. Read a contemporary prize-winning novel. Or settle in with an older work that has stood the test of time – perhaps an ancient classic or a nineteenth century novella.

In the heft of its weight, the smoothness of its surface, the sharpness of its edges, the quiet crackle of a page turned, a good book is a salve to the soul. It is a raft to rest upon in turbulent waters, one that will take you to calmer shores.


Recommended Reading and Resources
As we navigate these uncertain times together, we recommend the discussion and Readings below as both an encouragement and catalyst for reflection.