Books can help calm and transport you from pandemic stress. But many of us are finding it harder to read now. Here’s how—and why—to get back to it.
By Elizabeth Bernstein – The Wall Street Journal.
This past year, I’ve found myself returning again and again to a line of poetry by Emily Dickinson: “There is no frigate like a book.”
Like many people, I’ve needed the therapeutic effects of reading more than ever this year. As neuroscientists and psychologists (and your high school English teacher) will tell you: Books are good for the brain. And their benefits are particularly vital now. Books expand our world, providing an escape and offering novelty, surprise and excitement, which boost dopamine. They broaden our perspective and help us empathize with others. And they can improve our social life, giving us something to connect over.
Books can also distract us and help reduce our mental chatter. When we hit that glorious “flow state” of reading where we’re fully immersed in a book, our brain’s default mode network likely calms down, says Jud Brewer, a psychiatrist who directs research at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center. That’s a network of brain regions that is active when we are not doing anything else and that can get absorbed in worrying and rumination.
“There’s so much noise in the world right now and the very act of reading is a kind of meditation,” says Mitchell Kaplan, owner of the Miami-based independent bookstores Books & Books and co-founder of the Miami Book Fair. “You disconnect from the chaos around you. You reconnect with yourself when you are reading. And there’s no more noise.”
In 2020, the NPD Group recorded the best year of book sales since it began tracking comparable data in 2004. Sales of print books, which make up 80% of the market, were up 8.2% by volume over 2019, while sales of e-books were up 17%. The sales were driven by a number of categories, according to NPD book analyst Kristen McLean: children’s books; adult nonfiction, especially books about race and civil rights; and biography and memoir.
Yet even as people are buying more books, many are reporting they’re having a harder time getting through them. A study of British reading habits during the pandemic conducted this summer by researchers at Aston University in Birmingham, U.K., found that while people were reading more—citing more time to read, a desire to distract themselves, and more time spent reading with children—they were reading more slowly. Many of the survey’s 860 participants said they were distracted, and that this lack of concentration was making it harder to progress, according to Abigail Boucher, a researcher on the study and a lecturer in English Literature at the university.
Of course, it’s difficult for your brain to focus on a book when it’s constantly scanning for threats so it can keep you alive. That’s exactly what’s been happening to most of us since March—our fight-or-flight response has been consistently activated. (Sometimes I picture my brain as a cartoon brain with little arms and legs, swatting away a book I am holding and screaming: “Can’t you see I’m busy!”) Anxiety also causes our brain to release a flood of stress hormones, which zap our energy and make it harder to concentrate.
What can you do when this happens to you? Be more mindful of your reading habits. Here’s how.
Meditate. Clear your mind before you start reading. Sit quietly for five minutes and let your mind quiet down. Or listen to a short guided meditation.
Start short! Our brains are wired to love a reward, says Brown’s Dr. Brewer, author of the forthcoming book, “Unwinding Anxiety.” And finishing something you’re reading is rewarding. “It feels good, so your brain will want to do it again,” he says. He recommends choosing an engaging short story, maybe by a favorite author, and allowing yourself to get immersed. Then reflect on how you felt when you were reading.
Read something relevant. “If you are feeling in a state of flux, you can read in order to understand what is going on around you,” says Mr. Kaplan of Books & Books. If the topic is relevant to your life or current events, it’s also more likely to hold your attention. And research by professor emeritus Keith Oatley at the University of Toronto shows that the more narratives you read—fiction, biography, memoir, history—the more empathic you become. “Someone has worked very hard to take you inside the mind of another person,” he says.
Return to something familiar. When times are uncertain and scary, something familiar can be a source of solace. The survey of pandemic reading habits conducted by the researchers at Aston University found two types of readers: Those who focused on reading something new to them, to expand their knowledge, and those who re-read familiar books for the sense of comfort and stability and the lack of surprises.
Lisa Lucas, the publisher of Pantheon and Schocken Books and former executive director of the National Book Foundation, typically reads one or two books a week during a normal year. But for much of the pandemic, she found herself unable to concentrate on reading, a state that she says left her feeling adrift.
Then one day in December—sitting on her couch, scrolling on her phone while on a break from work—she remembered how much she likes to read “The House of Mirth” every few years around the holidays. The memory inspired her to pick up a book, and she reached for the closest one at hand, opened it up and started reading. Then she just kept going.
“Once I started, the comfort and distraction and brain-opening experience of having literature feel like it’s a part of my brain again was transformative,” she says. “It gave me peace.”
Here are some more tips on how to read mindfully.
Put your phone (far) away. Give it to someone to hold, with instructions not to give in to your pleas to have it back. Hide it in a drawer in another room, preferably on another floor.
Make reading a habit. Pick a favorite spot. Brew some tea. Read at the same time each day.
Go inward. Readers turned to many “quieter,” more introspective books this year, such as memoirs, books on mindfulness, and poetry, says Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Miami and co-founder of the Miami Book Fair. “The language of poetry often provokes a kind of catharsis when someone is feeling conflict,” he says.
Read the way you did as a kid—sprawled on a bed, on your back on the floor, under the covers with a flashlight. (I used to read in my closet.) Try to channel that sense of wonder, absorption and innocence. And creating a cubbyhole or reading nook can provide a sense of safety or protection, says Jud Brewer, a psychiatrist who directs research at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center.
Read first thing in the morning. It’s a great way to start your day. It forces you to put down your phone. And you’ll have more energy. “Anxiety is taxing,” says Dr. Brewer.
Try listening. Consider an audiobook. You can let the narrator do some of the work. You can multitask, turning one on while you’re driving, exercising or doing chores. And they may make you feel less lonely. Allyssa Fortunato, a 34-year-old publicity director in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., started listening to more audiobooks during the pandemic when she had trouble concentrating on reading and found an unexpected benefit: “In a time that is really solitary, I love hearing a voice in my ear that is not my own,” she says.
Put down the book if you’re not getting into it. Life is stressful and unpleasant in many ways right now. Reading shouldn’t be one of them.
Start a new book as soon as you finish the previous one. I do this at the same sitting. It helps me push through the uncertainty of what to read next. And I’m happiest when I’m absorbed in a book so I keep my roll going.
Featured article licensed from the Wall Street Journal.