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Sympathy and Bookmarks: Tips For Reading When You’re Laid Up

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A.J. O'Connell

Staff Writer

A.J. O’Connell is the author of two published novellas: Beware the Hawk and The Eagle & The Arrow. All she’s ever wanted to do in life is read and write books, and so, is constantly writing at least one novel. She holds an MFA in creative fiction, but despite the best efforts of her teachers at Fairfield University's low-residency program, remains a huge dork for sci-fi, fantasy and comic books. She is a journalist and has taught journalism to college students. She blogs about feminism, the writing life, and whatever else comes into her head at Blog: A.J. O'Connell Twitter: @ann_oconnell

In her essay “On Being Ill,” Virginia Woolf writes about the ways  illness changes a person’s perspective, and occasionally improves it.

…we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up—to look, for example, at the sky.

Illness, or recovery from it, can do the same for a person’s reading habits. If you’re ill, you might read more or less. You might not want to – be able to – read the genres you normally read. You might be a normally-prolific reader who is unable to read at all. And all of that is fine.

A few weeks ago, I went into the hospital for surgery. My recovery has been longer than I expected, and I’ve found myself in bed, unable to do much of anything, for long periods of time. I’m normally the sort of person who can’t sit still, so being stuck in bed has changed my perspective quite a bit, and it has changed my reading habits. I read more, listen to audiobooks less, and there are certain stories I just can’t read.

If you’re bedridden — if you’re going into a hospital for surgery, or if you’re sick with something that’s keeping you in bed for a long time — here are five tips for managing your reading (and your expectations about your reading) that I wish someone had shared with me.

1.) It helps to be prepared.

While you might not be able to prep for an illness, there are some things you can do if you suspect you’re going to be sick for a while. Pile your books at the side of your bed, away from wherever your food, drink and meds are going to be. Have a few books there, because you never know what you’re going to want to read, and make sure you have enough bookmarks as well.

This goes for the hospital, too. Even if you’re don’t think you’re going to be staying overnight, pack a little reading care package for yourself. Bring your books, or charge your device and bring it with you. Because nothing sucks harder than lying in a dark room all night with no reading material, and while the nurses’ station stocks those awesome slipper socks, as far as I know, they don’t keep a pile of bookmarks.

(Pro tip: if you’re bringing a book to the hospital and you have a booklight, bring it. Turning on those hospital room lights is an epic quest when you’re hooked up to an IV, and also, you don’t want to irritate your roommate.)

2.) Accept it when you can’t read.

Some of us (myself included) get competitive about reading. “Oh, I’m going to be lying down for a week? Great. I’ll read my whole TBR shelf.” Yeah, no. My first night in the hospital, I tried to read The Martian. I got as far as the first line (Which is, upliftingly, “I’m pretty much fucked.”) before I fell asleep. Sometimes you just can’t read. Sometimes reading is a lot of effort, and all you can do is stare at the TV or the wall, and that’s okay.

3.) Accept that your reading habits will change.

You might be in pain. You might be on drugs. You’re not moving around.  Your ability to read print might be compromised and you might listen to audiobooks. Or, you might be one of those people who listens to audiobooks during activities, and while you’re laid up you might abandon Audible in favor of print.

4.) You might change what you’re reading.

I decided my recovery would be the perfect time to finally read World War Z. You know what? It turns out that reading about a zombie virus while bedridden wasn’t my best idea ever. I ended up propped up in bed, with all the curtains open, so I could monitor all approaches to our home. Whoops.

Sometimes illness makes certain genres or topics less appealing. For example you might be under enough stress already, and not want to read a nail-biter of a thriller. You might want to read escapist novels. You might want to read more about illness, or avoid reading about it altogether.

(Woolf, who liked poetry when she was sick, has a quote about that too: “Illness makes us disinclined for the long campaigns that prose exacts.”)

5.) Your health comes before your TBR pile.

You do not have to read non-stop simply because you’re lying in bed. You don’t have to stay up all night to finish that book when you’re recovering. Please don’t judge yourself for choosing TV instead of a book when you’re sick. Your health is your priority, and if reading more is a byproduct of that, excellent.