After a ten year break, I’m reading again
I distinctly remember the moment at which I gave up on reading books, for what ended up being a span of around ten years. I don’t quite remember what year it was, but I was still in university so I think it was around 2012, although it could have been a year later or earlier. I was reading Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, quite eager to read the rest of the trilogy, feeling like there was some promise in a sci-fi series because I had always loved reading science fiction. But the book bored me almost to tears. I never finished it. I felt like I tried really hard to keep reading, but I couldn’t do it.
Perhaps there were a number of factors contributing to why that became the moment that I gave up. I was reading on an iPad, something I had become accustomed to several years prior. It took some time getting used to reading off a screen, but I found myself regularly doing so, and also reading on my phone when I felt that an iPad was too large.
I was always a completionist when it came to books. I prided myself on finishing every book I ever picked up, with the exception of Space Demons by Gillian Rubinstein and The King of Torts by John Grisham—a book that I accidentally stumbled upon, and that made me realise I hated the genre of law fiction. My friend Lilian and I had spent a large percentage of our high school years attempting to read every fiction book in the library, even keeping up with new releases at the same time. It was a lofty goal and although completion wasn’t 100%, it was a solid effort. I would estimate at least 70%. We would occasionally walk past the shelves and trace our fingers along the spines of the books until we found something we hadn’t read. Looking back, I don’t know what the goal was with trying to read every book. Being well-read was clearly not enough for my English teacher in ninth and tenth grade, who claimed—and told my mum—that I was not literate nor clever enough to do an English extension class. She said I should read more books.
Reading almost instantly became boring to me after I ceased to finish reading Red Mars. I recognised that the political content and the descriptions weren’t in the sub-genre of science fiction I enjoyed. I wanted more Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy kind of sci-fi. I think I ultimately felt disappointed that a book, much less a whole series of books, didn’t meet my expectations, and that I’d never struggled so much to finish a book before. I felt like maybe I’d burned out, and that was it.
I had been reading a couple of non-fiction books before picking up Red Mars and I was really taking a liking to them. I only read a few non-fiction books in the ten years after unintentionally giving up on reading, but I still don’t feel like it was really reading at all. I no longer sought out books to read, and I no longer paid attention to new releases. The few non-fiction books I read were ones I stumbled upon, or were recommended to me. Lilian continued to read, and it’s still a little amusing to me that after a dozen years, she hasn’t changed very much in the capacity and amount she reads, whereas I abandoned books for such a long time. She always recommended books to me, and—like my approach to movies—I found myself generally ignoring the recommendations, and realising that I would maybe never get around to consuming the media that even my friends recommended. The non-fiction books that I did read, on the other hand, were ones I accidentally stumbled upon and felt negligibly compelled to read perhaps because I knew the author, or the book just happened to be lying around, or I was bored and found myself in a bookstore.
And that is the other thing—the environment of bookstores was still inviting to me, but I was met with a large amount of overwhelm from seeing the books that I didn’t care to read, and didn’t want to read, and that I no longer valued. Something that I considered valuable and a hobby that I once found enjoyable became off-putting to me. I was truly an embarrassed and ashamed ex-bookworm.
There is a bit to unpack here. I don’t know where to start with the toxicity of being a completionist when it comes to books, but the amount of effort I spent trying to finish reading books must have felt soul-destroying at some point. I was also never one for the social aspect of books—no sharing stuff on Goodreads, no book clubs, and the few book reviews I wrote are now buried in the depths of my blog (oops). Had there been more of a social aspect to my reading approach, maybe I would have learned that it’s totally okay to not finish a book that I am not enjoying, and that some people have a list of books that they “DNF” (did not finish). I also purchased books frequently instead of using my local library. I was a member of my local library before I moved out of home, but it felt like such a bother to go there because I lived in the suburbs and it wasn’t in walking distance, and public transport wasn’t going to get me there easily. It became easier to purchase books, especially as e-readers became more popular. As I write this, I realise that I sound like I’m making excuses, but compared to when I was in school and my parents had the time to drive me around, it became more time consuming to get my hands on books.
I’m a very all-or-nothing person, too, and possessing that characteristic is something I have acknowledged, but not done a lot of work to manage. That mentality makes me quite stubborn and unwilling to try new solutions to problems. My solution is usually to never bother, never try, or just give up if something can’t be all-in or perfect. When I realised that I was purchasing books I wasn’t enjoying, and forcing myself to finish reading the books so it wouldn’t seem like I was wasting money, it was easier for me to just abandon the practice of buying books—instead of looking into alternatives like borrowing—until I stopped reading them altogether.
About a year ago, I decided to try and join the local library again. I don’t remember what encouraged me to do it, but I’d seen a handful of posts on social media about how much your local library has to offer for free. I don’t live too far from one, either, which kind of helps. Although I can’t remember specific conversations, I say with confidence that my friend Mitch probably had a hand in casually sharing his adventures to the local library or mentioning books he read, that encouraged me to pay my local library a proper visit (and not just to use the restroom in passing—yeah I’ve done that). There was certainly an air of that “all-or-nothing” mentality in even visiting the library in passing: I didn’t want to join the library (for fucking free, y’all) if I couldn’t even commit to “reading properly”—whatever that meant. I believe I had continued to carry the embarrassment of being a lover of books for my entire childhood and adolescence only to have it almost ripped out of me in my early adulthood in a way that was too nuanced to sum up in a single incident. And carry that embarrassment—for what? There was a ridiculous pride associated with even attempting to read the entire school library, and achievements I’d attached to my youth. Like winning the summer reading program for my local library. (Eyeroll.) And somehow, falling out of love with books made me feel like I was going against my entire being.
I was even completely anti-audiobook, claiming that it “isn’t really reading a book”. I would subtly judge people whose medium of choice was audiobooks, especially if they admitted to never reading books until audiobooks became more prevalent. The book purist in me was offended. I didn’t feel like it counted as having read a book if you simply listened to it narrated.
It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.
At the time, I wasn’t even reading books regularly, so I was being a bit of a hypocrite. If someone is able to consume books because audiobooks give them a more accessible way of doing so, then why does it matter to me? Just raining on everyone’s parade and exhibiting qualities of a gatekeeper.
Fast forward to now, and I have found peace in putting down books that I have not enjoyed. I have gotten into the habit of borrowing books, e-books, and audiobooks. My local library made it really easy to use apps on my phone to download e-books and audiobooks, which meant that even when I was lazy, I didn’t have to make the excuse that I couldn’t be bothered walking to the library. I had enjoyed non-fiction as an adult, and not been drawn to any fiction, so I made the decision to avoid fiction—for now. I was happy with the small circle I started with.
I found joy in walking around my neighbourhood during the COVID-19 pandemic listening to new music, and I slowly transitioned to trying audiobooks. I tried a few before I got the hang of hearing a voice narrating a book in my ears. There were a few that I gave up on pretty early, and I learned that they were simply not well narrated. (I can recommend Dave Grohl’s The Storyteller as an audiobook though, it’s fantastic.) I picked up a few physical books from the library and returned them because they didn’t feel welcoming. But I have been reading. I’ve come across books that I really did not enjoy, but still tried to finish, because they were promising. There was a struggle in dropping some that felt incredibly dull, but I have become better. I have become better at enjoying books. I’ve reached out to friends to recommend books to me. I’ve read some of them, and although I didn’t share the same opinions as my friends, that is totally okay. I have appreciated the dialogue that comes with having read a book.
I am on my own reading journey now, as anyone should be, and should be allowed to be.
I rested my angry, pained shoulders and breathed out a sigh of relief.
I let go of everything that had built up over the years, uncovering the suffocated child in me who just wanted the feeling of enjoying a book again. I stripped off my papier-mâché armour of dated reading achievements from my childhood. I removed my crooked crown of toxic, purist, book nerd bullshit. I forgave Red Mars for being the catalyst to my ten-year break from fiction novels. I let my inner child walk out and re-discover a literary world, free of burden.