Our Reading Lives

“What the Hell Is Going On?”: The Anxiety of Starting a New Book

Katie McLain

Contributing Editor

Katie's parents never told her "no" when she asked for a book, which was the start of most of her problems. She has a BA in Creative Writing from Lake Forest College and is working towards a master's degree in library science at U of I. She works full time at a public library reference desk in northern IL, specializing in readers’ advisory and general book enthusiasm, and she has a deep-rooted love of all things disturbing, twisted, and terrifying. (She takes enormous pleasure in creeping out her coworkers.) When she's not spending every waking hour at the library, she's at home watching Cubs baseball with her cats and her cardigan collection, and when she's not at home, she's spending too much money on concert tickets. Her hobbies include debating the finer points of Harry Potter canon, hitting people upside the head who haven’t read The Martian, and convincing her boyfriend that she can, in fact, fit more books onto her shelves. Twitter: @kt_librarylady

A couple weeks ago on the r/books sub-reddit, a member posted this interesting question regarding new books and reading comprehension:

“I find that I have some trouble starting new books or short stories. Once I have a grasp of the environment and characters I’m fine, or if it’s a story I am already familiar with.

But I find the first few chapters of a brand new book where I don’t know anything about the story are a struggle. I have trouble keeping focus and comprehending what is happening.

Any tips or ideas on how to cope with this?”

By the time I finished reading, I realized that I didn’t have any suggestions, but I did identify strongly with this problem.

Like the original poster, I tend to struggle with books where I am not automatically grounded in the story – mainly fantasy, science fiction, and short stories. Large, sprawling stories that require extensive amounts of fantastical world building are the bane of my reading existence because I can’t place the story anywhere in my head. I have no mental guideposts to orient myself. And while some readers find this to be an exhilarating experience, it drives me bonkers.

Short stories can be equally difficult for me for the exact opposite reason. Because each story has such a limited amount of space in which to expand, the reader is often thrust immediately in the middle of a scene, a world, a conflict, and left to their own devices. Some readers enjoy this because it gives them a chance to experience the author’s writing style in a more immediate sense, and I wish I could be like those readers, but I can’t. By the time I reach the end of a short story, I’m usually left feeling a little bewildered, like I’ve missed something crucial. One commenter identified with this feeling, saying “I dread starting new books, lest they make me feel like a muddled idiot.”

So why do I/we feel this way? For me, I think it has a lot to do with my educational career as an English major. In most English lit classes, you read a book, discuss the themes and symbolism, write a paper or two about some Big Idea found in the book, and if you don’t understand the essential point of the book, you’re penalized with a bad grade or feeling like the entire class thinks you’re an idiot. This is, of course, a harsh oversimplification, but it gets at the heart of the worry that if I start a new book, I won’t understand it the way that “everyone else” does.

Some of the other commenters on the Reddit thread try to offer advice along the lines of researching the context of the book before you start to read, rereading the first chapter, taking notes, doing research on fan forums, or most unhelpfully “The uncertainty is the best part of reading!” And maybe for some readers these suggestions will help, but if I’m going by my own experiences, making pleasure reading feel more like homework is not going to heighten your enjoyment of a book.

Overall, my new book anxiety lessened when I started working in a library and started reading mainly for pleasure again, but I sometimes still have a hard time branching into new books, even though I’ve had amazingly rewarding experiences stepping outside my literary comfort zone. So in response to the original Reddit post, I don’t know that I have any good suggestions for how to lessen that anxiety, but I feel you all the same.

Anyone else ever felt like this? Any good suggestions you’d offer to anxious readers?