When Reading is More Stressor Than Stress Relief

I can’t remember the last time I didn’t feel guilty about the books I’m not reading. I apologize for all the double negatives in that sentence, but it’s the best way I can find to put it. I’m pretty sure I was born with a TBR, but that used to be a source of excitement and possibility. As a kid, I would hoard physical books and stagger under stacks from the library. I didn’t get everything read that I wanted to, but that was the brilliance of abundance. I had assigned reading for school (which I could always finish quickly), and then I was free to explore any reading possibilities I wanted. Guilt was nowhere in my reading vocabulary.

Once I got to university, assigned reading became more of a burden. I was reading books I wouldn’t have picked up myself, and the time it took to read articles cut into any pleasure reading. I would squeeze in novels on the bus and would always be midway through an audiobook. It wasn’t the same as being a bookish tween, but my dedicated reading time during my commute meant I would always be reading something enjoyable.

It wasn’t enough for me to get an English degree and work in a bookstore, though. My passion for reading led me to book blogging, which grew into running the Lesbrary, a queer book blog with dozens of contributors. With book blogging came ARCs: free books! That were mailed to me before they were even published! (Or, more realistically, emailed to me.) This was so exciting that I vowed to read every sapphic book I was sent for review. Soon, that was an overwhelming task, and I began to outsource reviews to other contributors. I still always had a stack of physical ARCs, though, and that’s where the guilt began.

I only ever requested books I was interested in reading, but somehow those books piled on the dresser grew into a menacing tower. I would miss publication dates and not know how to recover: do I give up on those books and read the books that I can still get to in time? Or do I owe it to those books to read them first, even if I’m a little late? Library holds would come in, demanding to be read before their due dates—why did I request so many holds? I knew that I had a stack of books I needed to be reading. But the library holds always felt like they’d come in ages from now, by which time I must have my reading life together.

This is absolutely a silly, self-imposed problem to have. All I had to do was stop saying yes to ARCs…Wait, stop saying yes when publishers and authors offer to mail you a free version of a book you want to read? It’s possible. Or I could stop watching as much TV and quit my library holds habit. My reading would go in ebbs and flows—I never completely caught up, but sometimes I’d plow through a dozen books in a few weeks and get it down to just a few titles. Other times, a reading slump would end with an insurmountable stack.

When I began teaching, this problem grew out of control. It turns out that teaching takes up a lot of time—all of your time, if you let it. Doing practicums and substitute teaching left me so mentally exhausted that baking competition TV was about all the media I was fit to consume. Now, I see so many people talk about what they’ve read in lockdown: that the free time meant they could start those classics they always meant to, or that they read constantly for stress relief. Lockdown left me with more time than I’ve ever had in my life—and almost none of that was spent reading. It turns out that when I am stressed, books are the last thing I turn to.

When you’re immersed in the book world, oftentimes you end up comparing yourself to a “real reader.” The “real readers” read classics and Important Books. Real readers are always reading, no matter how little time they have or how stressed they get. Real readers read for relaxation (and for knowledge and self-betterment and everything else). Real readers remember everything they read, and they only have positive associations with reading. I know better than to compare myself to this Platonic ideal of a reader, but that doesn’t mean I can always resist that impulse.

I would love to be the kind of person who turns to books in times of stress. If I did, I’m sure I would be more relaxed and grounded; I always feel better when I’m reading regularly. Unfortunately, when my thoughts are racing, trying to read feels impossible. As I base more of my life and sense of identity around reading, it also gets tangled with sources of stress: should I be reading ARCs? Books for my next podcast recording? Titles to review at the Lesbrary? Teaching books? One of the books that’s been sitting on my shelves for more than a decade?

There’s something ironic about loving books so much that you build your life around them, only to make the concept of reading stressful. I still love books, of course. When I procrastinate on reading, I watch BookTube videos and read Book Riot and, yes, even browse the new additions to my library’s website. I’m not sure what the answer is. I don’t want to give up my book-related jobs, whether that’s blogging or teaching, but I also don’t know how to have a relaxing reading life with them.

Have you ever had reading become a source of stress in your life? I’d love to hear from you on social media. In the meantime, I’m going to keep listening to audiobooks and gazing guiltily at my TBR. Anyone know how to read ARCs through osmosis?

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