Recently, trapped between a scroll hole and obsessive games of Spelling Bee, my attention span increasingly on the fritz, I looked over at my bedside table, where a stack of half-read novels collected dust. I felt a ping of faint interest in the book on top, but still, it was another fifteen minutes of scrolling before I finally picked it up. There’s a scientific term for what I was doing: revenge scrolling, a phrase that describes the endless scrolling onto the wee hours of the night, an attempt, scientists say, to reclaim time and put off sleep. It was clear reading, as both a pastime and an act of presence, was in order. Below are a few guideposts I use to get back into a reading groove.
Just like eating can sometimes be hard when you are sick or sad, but you know the food will make you feel better, reading can be a challenge to ‘start.’ Start with something comforting, something delicious. Find a book with a plot you can sink your teeth into, like a cold Honeycrisp apple or a buttery croissant; rich, sharp, flavorful.
The first few months of lockdown, back in March and April of 2020, I read like I did as a kid, curled up for hours on the couch, sometimes reading a book a day on weekends. It mainly was Tana French mysteries and pop novels; for me, the reading equivalent to comfort eating. Try a thriller—an airplane book! Something juicy, maybe a little silly. Leigh Stein’s novel Self Care is perfect for this.
If a life lived scrolling has any lessons, it’s that we do have 20 extra minutes. I do 20-minute workouts and yoga classes, so why not read? Reading is a muscle. Work it out with a scheduled break! You only need two things: an alarm clock and an actual book. Or a Kindle, or magazine, newspaper, whatever. As long as it’s not on your phone or computer screen, I’ll allow it. (The blue light break is just as important.) It’s like storytime when you were a kid - I typically schedule mine for the 20-minutes post-lunch when I’m exhausted by my inbox. Knowing I’ve got a story break coming up gives me something to look forward to. (Yes, sometimes it’s followed by a nap!)
When my sister and I were little, my mom would have these things called “reading parties.” She’d make some popcorn on the stove, slice apples and cheese, and my sister and I would pick out books, and then we’d read. That’s it, that’s the party.
How we do something has as much value as actually doing it. Create a ritual around reading to make space for reading magic. Light a candle, find a sunny park bench, have a reading party! Getting in bed to read has become one of my favorite parts of the day because it belongs to a ritual entirely centered around care - washing my face, applying various potions and lotions, putting on my pj’s, and reading. Try working reading into something you already do, like your bedtime ritual or a commute on public transportation, and turn what might feel like a routine or a homework assignment into a self-care ritual.
Just like you think about what you need from a yoga or movement class, do the same with books! When it comes to reading, timing is, as it is with most things, everything.
Find material that meets you where you are or where you want to be. Maybe that’s a sweeping fantasy tale, the new Sally Rooney novel, or a years-old article on coyotes from The New Yorker online. It doesn’t matter what it is. What’s important is that you connect to it. The right book at the right time can change your life.
Flow charts and lists can help find a book for your mood, but my favorite way to think about what to read next is to identify a feeling. Feeling sad but meditative? Read Bluets by Maggie Nelson. Contemplating existence and what it all means? Check out Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and The Deep Origins of Consciousness. Looking to be transported? You need N.K. Jemisin. Craving a beautiful, thoughtful novel? The Vanishing Half is gorgeous.
Self-help is a multi-million dollar publishing industry with countless titles to choose from. But actualization can happen from reading an essay collection, a line of poetry on the subway, a cheesy novel you found in a hotel lobby. I wrote once that yoga helps me to articulate myself; the same can be said for reading. My thoughts often feel like dust in sunlight, gauzy and scattered, feelings and ideas floating loosely in space. Reading, they sharpen like splinters; feelings come into focus. Reading is a way of moving through ideas and worlds. Make your world big and full of beauty and surprises.
Try a genre or topic, or author you don’t recognize. Buy a chapbook, read an oral history, a children’s book! Go to your local bookstore and judge books by their covers - pick one out based on the cover design or title. Read poetry! Poetry is, after all, a kind of self-help. There is so much to discover about oneself and the world from writers like Frank O’Hara, Joy Harjo, or Tracy K. Smith. Not sure where to start with poetry? There are social media accounts and newsletters that can deliver poetry to your inbox or social feed.
Talk to your friends about what they’re reading. Elicit recommendations from people you trust or admire. Forward newsletters that moved you, share your favorite characters. Join a big book club, or form a book club of two with a pal and talk about what you’re reading, even if it’s not the same book. And tell me what you read that you loved!