I have been, for a little while, in a slump. Not just a reading slump, which is of course what this article is about, but other slumps, too: a social slump, a creative slump, a leaving-the-apartment slump. I love winter, but it is slump primetime. Your skin is dry, your sweaters are snagging, and it is so much easier to stay inside and watch fifteen episodes of Mozart in the Jungle. However sacrilegious it feels to admit, I don’t always feel like reading. In fact, when I feel completely burned out from work, being surrounded in both my cubicle and my bedroom by stacks and stacks of unread books elicits feelings of guilt and despair and intellectual inferiority that make it all the more appealing to just…take a nap, instead.
The good news about reading slumps is that it really only takes one book for you to feel like maybe you can get back into the swing of things—start posting on Goodreads again, start listening to the audiobooks you downloaded and then forgot about. This might sound a little crazy, but for me, that book was War and Peace. War and Peace was one of the reading goals that I set for myself in 2018, so I decided to make it the first book I finished in the new year. I read the excellent Richard Peavear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation, and although I approached the task of reading it with a kind of dogged determination, I was surprised by how much I loved and looked forward to reading it. In addition to being an obvious masterpiece, it was approachable and funny. Best of all, it could not have been further from my reality. Books about creative New Yorkers managing their neuroses are certainly represented on my bookshelf, but when I was in my slump I simply couldn’t handle fanciful descriptions of the subway. I much preferred long slogs through battlefields and sleigh rides to Moscow opera houses. The only commonality between the characters and me was that we were all living our private dramas in a seemingly endless cycle of snowy weather.
Truthfully, I owe a lot to War and Peace. One of my pre-slump plans was to write an article comparing the experience of training for a marathon (another New Year’s resolution) with that of reading a 1,200 page Russian novel, but when a combination of a bum ankle and pitch-black mornings made it clear to me that 26.2 miles might not be in the cards for me anytime soon, I had pretty much abandoned any plans of reading the book at all. I associated it with feeling lazy, incompetent, out of shape in more ways than one. That’s another thing about slumps—they start out being about one thing, and they end up being about everything.
They’re also unpredictable. Finishing War and Peace, however good I felt (however much I listened to the soundtrack for Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812), didn’t mean that everything was suddenly completely normal. Maybe my period of book celibacy was technically over, but my energy levels were still flagging, and my desperation to escape the drudgery was at an all-time high. Enter André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, a gorgeous, sun-drenched book that was as much a sensory experience as a story. I still haven’t seen the movie (I know, I know) but I still felt like I could see it all clearly: the villa, the ice cream cones, Oliver’s tiny swim trunks…Call Me By Your Name was another kind of epic, sweeping in its simplicity. It is, in the most basic terms, the story of a summer romance in Italy. But the way that it relentlessly takes hold of concepts like desire is truly extraordinary. I was spellbound, and, in a very different way than War and Peace, relieved from my slumpish existence.
If your identity is in any way informed by being bookish, you know how awful it can feel when you’re too tired, too sad, too whatever to read. The same applies to anything: what does it mean if I’m a runner who can’t run, or a writer who hasn’t written anything in months? The feelings of fraudulence and rootlessness abound. Slumps, or whatever you want to call them—bouts of depression might be another term that fits, at least for me—can be so horribly disruptive to the way that we live our lives, to our notions of what makes us, us. I’m so happy that I finally feel up to tackling my TBR once again, but what I’m trying to learn from the past few weeks is that being in a slump doesn’t change the essential fabric of who I am. I could go a year without reading and still very much be a person who loves to read. Books are patient, and the right ones will be there when you need them.