It feels terrible as a writer to admit, but I’ve been struggling to read for pleasure. I didn’t know it was an ability that could desert me until March 2020. It was during the Covid pandemic that I resolved to try and stop doom-scrolling on my phone, and found my eyes couldn’t settle on a page instead. It is a loss that has plagued me on-and-off ever since.
I didn’t worry at first. I looked it up (on my phone) and found that it was a common response to feeling unsafe. For every person for whom life in lockdown offered space for the comfort and escapism of reading, there was another who shared my sense of being stuck seeing only the surface of things; a kind of hypervigilant monitoring of our immediate fields of vision that sealed off deeper worlds of imagination. I accepted that because my body felt itself to be in danger, it was not willing to let me drift off somewhere else, even if that place – in a book – is where I have always felt most completely myself.
I was still reading every day for work, voraciously making my way through five centuries of British history as I wrote a book of my own. By the time I finished my reading and writing in the evenings, it seemed entirely reasonable not to do the same activity for recreation. I was absorbing multiple books a day! Or so I reassured myself, ignoring that this kind of reading was another form of vigilance – a focus harnessed to a specific purpose, as I raced through books in search of what I could use.
A couple of months after I finished writing my book, I had the worst break-up of my life to date. Again I accepted that amid the raging grief, loss and utter disconsolation it was normal to feel cut off from the imaginative parts of my brain, which I would usually retreat to for pleasure reading. Even though it would have helped, profoundly, to escape for a bit. In the absence of stories, I think I lost the ability to give my own life a sense of narrative.
It has been a slow return. For a while I read book after book written by psychoanalysts and counsellors about the therapeutic process, as if reading them might serve as a form of therapy itself. When I could not focus on the page, I instead took long walks alone in the countryside, in search of other means of finding my way back to myself.
I began, tentatively, to lose myself in nature writing, enraptured by Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and Vesper Flights. Next I tried a string of memoirs about walking – Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and Raynor Winn’s trilogy that begins with The Salt Path. I bought memoirs of self-discovery that I might once have been sniffy about – I read, without cynicism, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.
I have been reading, it emerges, a series of books written in the shadow of love and loss, by women who are very adept at narrating themselves. (It occurs to me only in retrospect how little I have been reading men – excepting a comically improbable duo of Anthony Bourdain and David Attenborough.)
Novels, though, are still a problem. I continue to struggle with an imaginative leap into a world that is entirely not my own. I can’t quite seem to achieve the trick of perception, the sinking-in that allows you to half-forget the conscious act of reading. But I’m strangely unmotivated, too, for reasons I can’t fully unravel. Audiobooks are helping; though I have read and adored them before in physical book form, I have been listening – over and over again – to Ben Miles read Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy. Each time it ends, I feel bereft.
I have been thinking about something the cultural historian Joe Moran wrote in the London Review of Books recently. He has been trying to get his university students to stop using the word “relatable” in their essays, to commend a theme or character in a text they’re analysing. “Relatable to what?” Moran writes. “The word seems to demand that literature should always mirror our own lives, instead of illuminating the strangeness of other lives.”
I feel something close to shame when I read this. It prickles at the edges of a thought I’ve been avoiding – that my reluctance to read fiction might be a symptom of something larger. That I have focused too much on myself, amid the inwardness of depression. That I have been sealing myself against the strangeness of others, out of an instinct for self-protection. It is such a normal human problem. But I think it’s time to crack myself open again.
This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission