Our Reading Lives

Struggling to Read During COVID? You’re Not Alone.

Katherine Packer

Staff Writer

Katherine Packer is a displaced Midwesterner currently living wherever she can find WiFi and a couch to crash on. She holds a BA from Sarah Lawrence and an MA from the University of Kent in International Conflict. While books have always been her first love, she’s recently been exploring how books can help open minds and change the world. You can get in touch with her here: katherineepacker@gmail.com.

The pandemic of 2020 has been challenging for people from all walks of life and has uprooted nearly everyone’s regular schedules in ways big and small. No matter who you talk to these days the question “How are you?” seems more loaded than ever.

Up until recently, I was one of the lucky (or unlucky, depending on your
perspective) to remain employed. I made it through all of the really tough
months with a steady paycheck and something to occupy my days. But it also
meant that my days were stress-ridden, anxiety-inducing trials that made me
feel like if I didn’t do everything perfectly, this security could be ripped away from me at any time. It certainly didn’t help that I had only been at the
job for a little over a month when the lockdown occurred in NYC, so I was doing
most of my on-the-job training alone in my room.

The worst part of all of this was that the stress from my job started bleeding into every single part of my life. With the lines between the workday and leisure time blurred into one amorphous blob, I found it difficult to let go of the stress of the day and truly relax or focus on other things. One of the most unfortunate casualties of this was that I suddenly found reading almost impossible. Reading has always been something that I turned to in difficult times as both an escape and a soothing activity that somehow had the effect of making me feel both productive and zen. But as the quarantine dragged on for weeks and months I found it increasingly difficult to get through more than a few pages of any single book.

I started and abandoned countless books during this time, hoping each time
that the next one would hook me in and ease my mind. But instead, I’ve just ended up with a mounting pile of partially read books and an accompanying sense of dread and guilt about my inability to read. There is nothing quite so disheartening as struggling to do something that used to bring endless pleasure.

It was also a stark contrast to all of my friends on social media posting
about the sourdough bread they were baking and the number of books they’d finished or new hobbies they’d picked up. I longed for languorous, aimless days unoccupied by work stress to really sit with myself and with what was happening in the world. I found myself endlessly scrolling Instagram, craving some contact with the outside world, and also growing ever more concerned about the state of our country.

Even as I struggled to do anything that brought me joy because of work stress, similarly I struggled to focus on my work because of general anxiety about the world. I found myself spiraling further downwards as my work suffered, making it even more difficult to take any time to truly relax. Reading, which had so often brought me solace, felt like an unnecessary luxury I couldn’t afford to make time for, and yet still something that is essential to who I am.

Now, with my newly unemployed status, I have a whole host of new fears and anxieties, tied primarily to how I am going to pay my bills in the coming months. But I am slowly feeling the portion of my brain that was occupied by job anxiety empty of this stress. In its place is a spaciousness that I haven’t felt since before the world collapsed. This morning I sat and read for over an hour, and not only did I not feel any guilt around taking this time, but I was engaged and activated. Reading is always something that I’ve viewed as a type of relaxation that still uses my brain and therefore allows me to focus on other tasks more completely. I am so happy that reading has come back to me, and in a time when it’s difficult to find things to be grateful for, I am certainly thankful for this.