A few months into the Panda Express, I realized that there was something happening with my reading. I wasn’t particularly reading less — though if I was, it was because someone had told me about Crash Landing On You and I was on my third watch-through of it or some other Korean Drama, which have really been filling up my cup with great romances since 2020. I might have even been reading more compared to the years before it. Rarely would a day go past that I wasn’t holding a book or some device feeding me the written word in droves. But what I wasn’t doing? Finishing. “The End?” I don’t know her.
I noticed it first with Cemetery Boys, a book I had been excited to read and had immediately bought upon its release. I might have actually checked it out from the library first, but realized I would want to own it and returned it so I could get my own copy. This book, written by a trans author and featuring a trans brujo trying to find his way in the world and the ghost who annoyed him to no end, sounded like exactly what I needed. Magic, romance, queerness, and a complicated family dynamic? Sign me the eff up. And I devoured it. Inhaled. Laughed, cried, cringed, and gasped. The writing was spectacular. The contrast between family drama and slow burn love story was expertly done. To this day, I would die for Yadriel, Julian, and Maritza. I was enraptured.
Until about page 150, when I put it down to…do something else. Maybe it was time for dinner. Maybe I had to go to bed or to work. Whatever happened, I put a bookmark in it, and then never picked it back up.
I would pass it by, even lovingly stroke the cover. I might have even picked it up once or twice. Flipped to where the front flap held the page I’d stopped on, right in the middle of a chapter, and then put it back where I’d found it.
But I never started reading it again.
I would see this happen several times over the course of the next couple of years. Sometimes it was a library book that I had to return but didn’t particularly feel sad about. Sometimes it was a book I was reading for a group conversation or book club, and maybe jumped ahead to read the end to make sure I knew what happened, but didn’t bother to go back and read the middle. More than usual, though, it was just a book I happened to be reading during a time of stress or distress that fell as a casualty to everything else going on.
And in the end, that’s the answer to the question I’ve posed to myself and everyone who will listen.
We’ve all had a rough couple of years, and mine was still better than some. But with everything that comes with a combination of pandemic life, cancer treatment, and mental health issues for everyone in a single household, also comes a great deal of stress. And stress can do many things to the body and to the mind.
Stress. That fickle asshole.
Every news and entertainment outlet — whether it’s The New York Times or a small reading blog — will tell you that reading is good for stress relief. Fiction, especially. We’ve all seen the study that claims reading for as few as six minutes can decrease stress by nearly seventy percent. It’s good for your mental health — it boosts serotonin. Your heart rate slows, your muscles relax. You’re so focused on the plot, you can’t think about anything else. And a good narrative arc will stick with you even when you’re not reading it, so the only thing you might be stressing about is whether the main characters will finally get their act together and kiss already!
But there’s only a certain level of stress that folks can handle. This pancake breakfast has led to a lot of trauma and anxiety, and those of us who have had other physical and mental health issues on top of it, also have other factors leading to our inability to process trauma and find enjoyment in the things we love. Note: I knew when I started treatment that I would endure the much maligned brain fog that is Chemo Brain. But all of this began before I lost six months to weakness of the mind and body, which continues now that I’m done. One thing that the pandemic has done is take our normal levels of concentration, executive function, and anxiety, and mess with the controls. So as our anxiety levels continue to rise and fall thanks to the constant ebb and flow of the pandemic, our ability to concentrate, and to stay on the ball and properly access our working memory, drops like a carnival ride.
For some, that means an ongoing reading slump: nothing is hitting right and words just don’t make sense. Some books will be put down because the anxiety of how they’ll end is just too much to bear, and I will admit to reading the last few pages of any book that isn’t a romance just to know what I’m getting into…or decide not to read it. But for someone like me who has to read a lot for various work-related purposes, it means a lot of half-finished books hanging around the house and a constant, ceaseless voice in the back of my head bemoaning the lack of an entry in the Finish Date column of my spreadsheet. In 2020, I DNF’d 58 books and then 67 in 2021. I’ve already marked nine as such this year, but there are plenty more that are still waiting, with that empty cell under Finish Date blinking at me on the regular.
For almost all of these books, there’s a curious voice in the same corner of my mind asking if I’ll ever pick them up again. The characters were interesting; the writing was divine; the plot might have been going somewhere. I obviously enjoyed them at the start and like knowing things; that would make me curious as to how they end, right?
In answer, I open my phone or kindle — or wander over to my physical TBR — and open something new.