It’s no secret: people are having a difficult time focusing right now. The COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanied social distancing and isolation measures are giving lots of us, to define it in the mildest terms, cabin fever with a side of fuzzy brain. It turns out unlimited free time during an ever-evolving global health crisis is not the cozy, productive respite you were looking for.
Reading tons of books and audiobooks is usually part of my normal routine; it’s something I love to do and that brings me comfort, joy, new knowledge, escapism, anything I need it to really. But I’m having a difficult time focusing on new narratives right now. I’ve been existing mostly on Jane Austen adaptations and Fred Astaire movies. Every week my phone’s screen time report delivers some truly alarming statistics and I’m trying my best to put my news intake/outrage on a reduced schedule.
Meanwhile, friends and relatives are steamrolling through audiobooks and sending me screenshots and clips along the way, telling me audio will get me out of this funk. I believed them, but I needed a strategy. Here are three things I tried to get myself reading again.
Finish Books You Started or Purchased in Print
I get so excited about new books and then I buy them, read a hundred pages, put them on my shelf, and then suddenly they’ve been there a while, and that’s it. I still love them and want to read them. I promise them I’ll be back soon whenever I walk by my shelf, but I’ve moved on. And that’s when everything’s “normal.” Now they are my constant companions, judging me from on high as I play one more level of Gardenscapes. Anyway, I figured books in this category might be a good place to start, since they’re technically not completely new narratives to my reeling brain.
So, I stood in front of my shelf and picked a few titles, then I searched for the audiobook; one I found available on Hoopla (bless), one I found already in my Audible library (seriously what is wrong with me). I found success with this method with three books so far: The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose (this book is only 278 pages and I found my bookmark literally on page 100—I truly have a problem), A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab (according to Goodreads, I started this book *checks notes* three years ago), and Shadowsong by S. Jae-Jones (I Instagrammed this book several times, but never finished it).
Try this at home: Pick up a book you have a bookmark in or a book you were super excited about but never got around to or a series you started, but never finished. Don’t worry about the continuity of the medium or remembering what exactly was happening in the story, just find the spot where you left your bookmark and hit play. You will feel that sought after tiny moment of achievement at reading again AND checking something off your to-do list.
Listen and Read Along in Print
Getting your eyes and ears working on the same task is a good way to try and combat a short attention span. Put your phone on do not disturb for half an hour to fully tune out the news. It will be there when you get back, trust me…have I mentioned my screen time report? I tried this tactic with a classic I’ve never read before: Persuasion by Jane Austen. I love the movie version, seriously circa 1995 Ciarán Hinds what? Like a detective I was searching for those little Anne x Wentworth moments of recognition.
This technique works really well with classics. Because of the public domain, ebook editions are sometimes free and the library will usually have a few different versions of the audiobook available. You can also find free audiobook editions on apps like LibriVox, as well as versions on major retailers like Audible for a few dollars once you “buy” the free ebook on Amazon.
Try this at home: Pick a book you’ve had your eye on forever, but only ever get a few lines or pages into before you give up again. Maybe you’ve seen a movie version and already have a good idea of what the story might be or an emotional attachment to the characters. Follow along with the text as you listen to the audiobook. Learn how to properly pronounce words in the process.
Read Out Loud
There are so many new books coming out this year that I’m super excited about. I have a list of digital ARCs that I’m truly giddy about, but again my ability to focus on words that I’m responsible for bringing to my own brain is running on empty. So, I had a FaceTime conversation with my sister and she came at me with that audiobooks-are-the-solution bit. I explained that the books I felt like reading were only available as ebooks right now. She suggested that I read aloud to myself to mimic the experience of an audiobook. That idea is genius, but don’t tell her I said so.
I started by reading one of my most anticipated titles of the year, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. So far, I’ve made it to 30%. I haven’t finished a whole book this way yet, but it definitely got me reading, which is the main thing. Some other upcoming books on my list are: Among the Beasts & Briars by Ashley Poston, The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson, and Network Effect by Martha Wells.
Try this at home: If the book you want to read is only available in print, or you can’t easily or affordably find the audiobook, try reading it out loud to yourself. Now, I realize this isn’t an option for a lot of folks who have kids or spouses or roommates or judgmental cats, but if Jennifer Ehle can read Pride and Prejudice to her Instagram and YouTube followers from her car then it’s worth a try. You can even try reading out loud with your like-minded, nerd friends on video chat and you’ll have something else to talk about besides impending doom.
I hope this list is helpful to you in your quest to feel some semblance of whatever normal means to you in these dark times. Hit me up on Twitter and let me know what you’re doing to help you focus in isolation.