How I Re-Found My Reading Focus During the Pandemic

Marci Rae Johnson
Sep 24, 2020 · 6 min read

When lockdown first began in March, like many of you, I had more time on my hands as my work dwindled and my social life came to a standstill. Since it was still cold here in the Midwest, and friends and family hadn’t yet figured out how to gather together in safe, socially-distanced ways, it seemed like the perfect time to put on my handmade wool socks, make numerous cups of tea and hot chocolate, snuggle up under my weighted blanket, and settle in at home with a big pile of books. Basically, I decided to hygge-up my pandemic life big time. However, every time I opened a book, my mind wandered and I couldn’t seem to focus on the words. How distressing! Normally I tend to read for hours and hours every week, and I have always gone to books for solace, distraction, and escape. So books seemed like the perfect antidote to pandemic anxiety! But instead, I found myself spending my hours on social media, watching tons of Netflix, messaging with friends, baking bread and cakes, reading the news, sleeping, shopping online— doing anything and everything I could possibly do at home except reading.

Eventually I started to notice I wasn’t the only one with this problem, as more and more articles came out about the phenomenon. This brought me some comfort, though I still felt jealous of people like my BFF who somehow upped her reading quantity during the lockdown! (I’m still mad at you, by the way. You know who you are.) So for a while, I gave up and just let myself be pressed down into the couch further and further by the weighted blanket. But one day, I looked up from my iPhone’s tiny screen, blinked my unfocused eyes once or twice, and came up with a plan for getting back into reading. I wanted my first love back! I wanted to once again enjoy that feeling of getting lost in a book, and, I’ll admit it, of checking off more and more books on my reading challenge. I had fallen ten books behind, and I wanted to catch up. So here’s what I did to get myself back into reading, and it worked! (For the most part. Though I still can’t stop browsing Zulily for cute shirts.)

Short Books
No, it’s not cheating (no matter what your BFF might say). To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, a book is a book, no matter how small, and starting a book that was 112 pages instead of 350 felt like a task that I could have some hope of actually completing. Even though I don’t normally enjoy many books that are considered “classics,” somehow I read, and enjoyed, several short books written by classic authors. These included In the Café of Lost Youth, a novella by French author Patrick Modiano, set in Paris in the 1950s; Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, by Doris Lessing, a book of political and social criticism Lessing wrote in the 80s that’s also completely relevant today; and The Shawl, two short stories collected into a little book by Cynthia Ozick, about how the Holocaust scarred a particular character. These books aren’t light reading, so they made me feel like I was truly reading well again, and their short length made them feel doable!

Light Reading
But yes, light reading helps too! And by light reading, I don’t mean poorly written (I can’t take books with badly written sentences) but books that focus on plot rather than on in-depth analyses of characters, social situations, historical periods, etc. — or books that are more lighthearted and have happy endings. The plot-driven sci fi book Wool, by Hugh Howey, is a great pick here, as the fast-paced plot will have you turning the pages quickly in order to find out what happens! Books that perhaps edge on the “chick lit” genre are great for this too, and I enjoyed Elizabeth Berg’s Confession Club for this, as well as a delightfully witty novel called French Exit, by Patrick deWitt, and Anne Tyler’s new book Redhead by the Side of the Road.

YA and Children’s Books
I generally find the reading level of YA books easier than your average book for adults, though they can be just as satisfying and well-written as any other book! One of my perennial favorites in this genre is John Green, and I read his book Paper Towns in April and Looking for Alaska in May. His characters are so engaging! I also discovered the Love & Gelato series, by Jenna Evans Welch, which I would place in the YA romance genre, but the books are not at all formulaic. And I haven’t read many children’s books since my kids were little, but I’m finding children’s classics especially enjoyable these days. They are short, well-written, and fascinating, and despite the fact that I became a reader at the age of four, I had never before read The Little Prince and Cinderella!

Graphic Novels
When this genre first started to become popular, I have to admit, I was skeptical, but now I often find the pictures help me read the text, and some of the art is truly incredible! I burned my way quickly through the seven books that have so far been released of the Space Boy series, by Stephen McCranie. Wow! These YA level graphic novels are so fun: very fast-paced and also full of teenage drama that anyone who has ever been a teenager can relate to. And if you haven’t yet experienced the Hilda books, you are missing out on some of the best graphic novel art out there (it’s now a fabulous Netflix series, too).

Yes, I realize that many people find poetry scary, but poems are short, yet full of substance, so they’re perfect for our purposes! If you’re new to poetry, try this Billy Collins collection, Sailing Alone Around the Room. It’s got so many funny poems in it, and his poetry is easy to relate to! Then, if you want more, try some of these gems: No More Milk, by Karen Craigo; How He Loved Them, by Kevin Prufer; What Will Soon Take Place, by Tania Runyan (disclaimer: this is the aforementioned BFF); Citizen, by Claudia Rankine; and any poetry book published by WordFarm press (disclaimer: okay, I edited those books.) If you still want more, I can recommend probably 200 more to you.

Optimistic Nonfiction
Here’s an antidote to all the bad news we read on a daily basis: the book Factfulness, by Hans Rosling. The subtitle says it all Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. In other good things in the world, I also enjoyed the book The Free Little Library Book, which chronicles the start of the free little library phenomenon and its spread throughout the world. And, it has pictures! And now, as I begin reading Erik Larson’s new book, The Splendid and the Vile, I remember how refreshing it is to lose myself in another period of history (in this case, WW2) and forget about my own for awhile. We could all use a little of that these days!

Have you read any of these books already? Comment here and let me know your experience with them. And also let me know if you try any of these techniques with your own reading, and how they worked for you.

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