Our Reading Lives

Reading Fatigue: Remembering Every Minute Doesn’t Need to Be Productive

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Laura Marie

Staff Writer

Laura Marie is a writer and teacher in Ohio. She reads one or two audiobooks every week, loves falling into a good cooking memoir, and debates feasibility of tech from sci-fi books with her husband.

I’m in the throes of launching my own business, and the very idea of reading is making me tired. Much like a college student, my work often involves reading a lot, and these days, when I look over at my ever-full bookshelf of still-to-be-read tomes, I just…don’t wanna. It’s reading fatigue.

burnout reading slump feature

Too Much Productive Reading Creates a Struggle

Reading fatigue might have seemed odd to people a hundred years ago or more. After all, regular daily life was so often about physical labor; now, many jobs require a substantial amount of reading just to get to the work tasks themselves. With so much of communication culture moving to text messages and emails, we read even when we don’t think we are reading. In my opinion, it changes our brains, and it changes how much we want to read for pleasure.

Don’t get me wrong: I want to read for fun. I recognize all the benefits I have gotten from being a bookworm my whole life. However, there is something about that statement—“all the benefits”—that makes it seem like books are a means to an end. So much of my reading now, after all, is instrumental. It gets me from point A (not knowledgeable) to point B (better informed). Subtly, without me noticing it, I’ve started to expect something “productive” from books as well.

After all, many of us read creative and literary writing for more than just pleasure: we read to understand things about the world, to empathize with the feelings of people different from us, and to learn more about the craft of words so that we too can write well. Among all these lofty reasons, though, I think I’ve lost something. I’ve lost non-productive reading.

This doesn’t mean that there are no side benefits to reading, of course, it just means that people tend to fall more headlong into a book when they want to read it for enjoyment’s sake, not when it checks a bunch of to-do list boxes. These days, my brain is so full of spreadsheets, facts, and figures, I have a hard time turning that part of my brain off in order to read for pleasure. I think a lot of us share this affliction.

So What Can I Do About Reading Fatigue?

My solution has been to focus on genres that bring me tons of pleasure and are as far removed from my day job as possible: from starting reading Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata fantasy series just because she is visiting Cincinnati (near me), to jumping back into my old favorite Lorrie Moore short stories from Like Life and the introspective marshy tales from Lauren Groff’s Florida. Whenever a story or a sentence makes me think of something related to work, I do try to write it down—I’m in a field where mobilizing my best ideas are the surest way to succeed. However, if those thoughts become intrusive, I switch to reading something else. I want to keep trying until I figure out how to lose myself—and my productivity drive—in books again.

I keep coming back to “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver, particularly a line that says, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.” We are living in a time when many of us are blending the things we care about into both our free time and our work time; it can be hard to remember what it is that our soft animal bodies love. I know, however, that back when knowing what would give me joy was easier to parse, I read a lot. I’m following that trail for now, hoping to find my way into a love of reading again.

Along the way, I’m trying not to care how long it takes to overcome reading fatigue; it doesn’t make sense to just throw more effort and willpower at a hobby that, fundamentally, shouldn’t be too hard. I eventually will want to read again, but patience seems to be a virtue until then.