Before we get into the particulars of this no-reading experiment, I need to make one thing clear up front:
Reader, I lied.
I set out to go five days without reading. In the end, I didn’t read for four and a half days. But it sure felt like a week.
Setup & Introduction
Presumably, you, like me, enjoy books. So you might be asking yourself the same question I asked myself on the first day of my no-reading experiment: why would anyone subject themself to a self-inflicted week of no reading? I go through reading slumps like anybody else. It is not a nice feeling. I know that being a readers means a certain ebb and flow, but generally I prefer the flow to the ebb. I try to be kind to myself during a slump and not to fall into the “but you should be reading!” trap. I have never purposely, expressly forbidden myself from reading, though. I have never before attempted a self-induced slump.
So why now? I read a lot. Like, A LOT. Books, undeniably, bring me endless joy. Reading is one of my favorite things about being a human. Books are also a part of my work life. Between my career, my love of reading, and my natural tendency toward extremes…well, I spend about 98% of my free time reading. It’s just what I do. Wake up, put on an audiobook, take the dog out, eat breakfast. Read some poetry or a short story before work. Lunch? Back to the audiobook! Done with work? Time to read! Ready to make dinner? Back to the audiobook! Get in bed, read some more, fall asleep, repeat. Sure, I also sometimes see friends or work on my own writing or do a craft project. But I have become adept at squeezing books into every last corner of my life. Reading is the default.
I wanted to see what kind of space would open up in my life if I stopped reading. What new joys might I discover? Would I listen to more music? Would I be better able to focus on writing my own fiction? Reading is so deeply engrained into every part of my day. The only way to find out what I was missing, I decided, was to go cold turkey. No reading. Full stop.
My original plan was to go a full seven days without reading. But as the planned week approached, my sense of dread became overwhelming. A whole weekend without reading? I couldn’t do it. So I relented, and decided five days would be an adequate data collection window. I would start my week of no reading when I woke up Monday morning, and it would end when I woke up the following Saturday. One workweek with no books.
The rules were simple: I would not read any books. No print books, no digital books, and most definitely no audiobooks. No comics. Reading shortform pieces online was allowed — podcasts, the news, even book reviews. But no books.
Results & Analysis
It became immediately clear, on Monday morning, that the worst part of this experiment was going to be the no audiobooks part. I have a morning routine that revolves around audiobooks. I go on a long walk with my pup, I make breakfast and eat it, often eat it while working on a puzzle — all while listening to an audiobook. It’s a leisurely, luxurious way to start the day. Without the audiobook my morning felt long and empty and wrong. I ended up just starting work early.
On Monday afternoon, I asked around on Instagram for some new music recommendations. I picked out a few albums, put one on, and settled in at the kitchen table to work on my new commonplace book. Yes, I spent my first day of my week of no reading doing a book related thing. But I actually had a lovely time! There was something almost freeing about it. After I finished work for the day, the afternoon was a blank slate. I could do anything (well, almost)! Usually, I don’t even think about what I want to do. I just sit down with my book and my cup of tea.
It turns out listening to music and doing a project is a pretty rad way to spend a Monday evening.
Invigorated by the influx of new music, I woke up excited about the day. I put in my headphones and went about my morning as usual, just with a slightly different soundtrack. But the music just wasn’t sticking. I liked it, but I still felt antsy and ungrounded. I didn’t feel inspired to make a nice breakfast or eat it leisurely. I turned off the music and went to work.
I adore audiobooks and can’t imagine my life now without them. But they have become my default. I rarely listen to music these days. It’s just audiobooks, audiobooks, audiobooks. I listen to them not only in the mornings, but when I’m driving anywhere, while I’m walking my dog, while I’m cooking dinner. I often think about listening to music. I miss music! But audiobooks are really hard to resist.
I was hoping my week of no reading would help me find some balance around my aural media. And it did! My mornings did not get better. I missed audiobooks acutely every day. But I found that I loved walking my dog in silence. I loved listening to music while cooking dinner. I didn’t miss audiobooks at all on short drives, but when I had to drive 45 minutes one day, and couldn’t listen to an audiobook, I was grumpy AF. Cutting myself off entirely form audiobooks helped me decipher the difference between when I actually wanted to listen to them, and when I was just doing it reflexively. A win for no-reading week!
I finished work and closed my computer and walked around the house aimlessly and felt sad. The novelty had worn off a little and I just really wanted to read. I spent the afternoon and evening watching comforting TV. There is nothing wrong with watching TV, obviously! I had even thought that I might use my week of no reading to try a new show. But instead, I just sulked. I was ready for the week to be over, and I wanted the time to pass as quickly as possible.
I am a reader but I am also a writer. I’m in the messy middle of working on a novel, a project I care about deeply but have hardly touched since the pandemic started. Just about everything is easier than actually writing. I used to be incredibly disciplined about it, but in the past few years, I’ve struggled to find the motivation. It’s always easier to read. It’s more fun to read! Why not just read?
I had this fantasy that not reading for a week would mean I’d spend every afternoon working on the book. But Thursday afternoon rolled around and I hadn’t touched it. This wasn’t exactly the lesson I wanted, but it’s one that makes sense: if you want to do a thing, you have to just do the thing. Usually, when I’m looking for an excuse not to write, I read. During my week of no-reading, I worked on my commonplace book, completely reorganized the files on my computer, had a friend over for dinner, made an apple crisp, watched a bunch of TV, and repotted some plants. In conclusion: the only thing stopping me from writing is me.
Around 5 p.m. on Friday evening, I caved. I could not face the thought of a Friday night without books. I had made it four whole days! I’d listened to some truly wonderful new music and learned some things about myself and this whole project was self-inflicted, anyway. There was only so far I was willing to push myself.
Reader, the pleasure I took in settling down on Friday evening with my stack of books and my bowl of ice cream: indescribable. I’d been fine, without books. But I hadn’t been happy. Honestly, the whole week was worth it just for the joy of that Friday evening. Yes, I often spend my Friday evenings reading. But that one was especially good. It felt like a delicious treat. Coming home after being gone too long. I reveled.
Most of the things I learned over the course of the week were things I already knew, consciously or not. I just didn’t want to look at them too closely. Yes, I sometimes use reading to avoid other things, like writing or seeing friends. Reading is central to who I am, but it’s also a habit, and not always one that’s good for me. Balance is always better than extremes. If I want to make time in my life for writing, I just have to make the time. Silence is sometimes as lovely as audiobooks. Listening to music brings me joy. And this comforting knowledge: I am still me, even without books. I don’t want to have to live without them, but I didn’t morph into an entirely different human without them. It’s nice to know.
Going a week without reading was hard. But the real challenge is going to be taking what I learned during that week and applying it to my life. The experiment is over; now it’s up to me to make space for music and silence and writing. It’s up to me to pause before putting on an audiobook to ask myself why I’m hitting play. Finding balance in my reading life is an ongoing process. But I’m more acutely aware, now, of what I want my reading — and my life, deeply intertwined as they are — to look like. I’d say that means my no-reading experiment was a success.
But I’ll never ever be doing it again.
Clearly I’ve been thinking about balance in my reading life for a while, because last year I wrote a whole piece about how to read less. Annika came up with some very silly ideas for reading less, too. I also highly recommend this wonderful piece Kelly wrote about how to audit your reading life. You can, in fact, think deeply and critically about your own reading without, you know…taking extreme measures.