Why Is Reading So Hard Right Now?

Illustrated by Sandra Poliakov.
"If I’m really honest, I feel like a failure," says Daisy, 26, an English teacher and trainee counsellor. "I love reading. I love it enough to teach it! I’m trying to encourage all of these young people I teach to be reading in lockdown but I can barely manage it myself."
In February 2021, reading is hard. Not 'reading' as in the way we digest the internet, skimming and scrolling and half-registering the details, but sitting with a physical book. Focusing on the words on a page for any period of time feels, for many of us, like an insurmountable task.
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For a lot of people this has been true since the beginning of the pandemic but now, nearly a year in, how we acknowledge this struggle has moved from a laughing hysteria at the anxiety of living right now to a more overwhelming sense of guilt and frustration. Talking to friends and colleagues about reading, the conversation is dotted with references to untouched 'to read' piles or someone will name-check a book before adding, "I haven’t actually read it though". Remembering when reading wasn't such a chore is painful. "I miss giving myself that time to be quiet and get wrapped up in a story or excited by a new idea," Daisy says. "It feels like my brain has been put on pause while all my headspace is taken up just getting through the day."
What is creating this resistance to reading in us? How can we break down that mental barrier? And crucially, with everything else we've got going on right now, should we even try?
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At the moment, the factors in our lives which are essential for reading are all askew. The way we see time, for example, is different now. For the many of us now working from home, time is no longer blocked out into discrete sections: shower, breakfast, commute, work. Instead, those sections flow into each other, depending on our decisions. In many ways, there is a relief in the flexibility provided by working from home but with that loss of structure comes the loss of moments we have carved out for ourselves. A commute, for example, was often a time many set aside to get absorbed in a book or a podcast. Without it, that time is eaten into or lost entirely.
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Anica, 31, is a civil servant who used to read one or two books a month on her commute to work – now, she struggles to find time to read. Although she feels this as a loss, it is less to do with losing the reading itself. "I feel sad but mainly as the environment I loved reading in isn't there anymore. I liked the fact that I had a half hour carved out to get lost in a book, knowing the travelling time was well spent."
This sorrow about losing this time speaks to an anxiety we’re currently negotiating about every facet of our lives. Will we ever get to travel in the same way we once did? And if and when we do, will the experience of travelling be as relaxing or enjoyable as it was before? We do not have the answers to these questions. And so trying to replicate that sense of immersion we once felt when reading seems futile.
The anxiety we feel about the unknown and how it interacts with our ability to focus manifests in many different ways. To function in a global pandemic means reckoning with anxiety on a scale most of us have never experienced. How we manage this anxiety might be unique to each one of us but the fact that it is impacting us in some way is universal.
Anxiety is unique among mental health problems: it is both a mental health diagnosis and a normal adaptive function. Oliver J. Robinson is a neuroscientist and psychologist based at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London who specialises in the neuroscience of anxiety and depression. "Everyone feels anxious," he tells Refinery29. "It makes sense to feel anxious – it's a process that basically promotes harm avoidance." He uses the example of walking through darkened woods and feeling anxious because you cannot see what’s ahead of you. "If you're feeling anxious, your brain is priming you to detect change like the sound of rustling leaves or being ready to run away." This is anxiety functioning the way it is meant to as an evolutionary tactic. However anxiety can also be maladaptive, which is when the alertness and unease that prime you to avoid harm last long after you have reached a place of safety.
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Anxiety about the pandemic is eating into our brain capacity and our ability to find joy where we once did. Instead, we are constantly on the lookout for harm.

For nearly a year now, we have been living with the constant threat of an illness about which it is totally reasonable to feel anxious. Importantly, the threat is also uncertain and unknowable. "If anxiety is about uncertainty, the situation we're in now is about the most uncertain one that you can possibly get," says Oliver. "Every person you see may or may not be a carrier and any scenario you go into may or may not mean you catch coronavirus." And catching coronavirus, of course, can have real, life-threatening outcomes. It is a perfect environment to induce anxiety. Crucially, in lieu of getting any certainty, the adaptive function has been set on high alert for far longer than we are used to. The anxiety is eating into our brain capacity and our ability to find joy where we once did. Instead, we are constantly on the lookout for harm.
Trying to read, then, with all this going on means you have to be able to detach yourself from the world around you. It's a difficult task at the best of times.
For Barnaby Smith, 28, a charity project manager working in diversity and inclusion, the solitary nature of reading is the crux of the struggle. "I find that any time I pick up a book, I just can't focus. I feel this compulsive need to find out what's going on in the world," he tells R29. He attributes this to wanting to feel connected to some sense of normality. "I think it probably comes from the fact that I'm at home all the time (like a lot of people) and just want to feel connected to the outside world and my friends."
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Others have found that immersing themselves in a book can trigger further anxiety. Thirty-one-year-old Lucy is a marketing manager for a Nordic agency who currently has to avoid reading altogether. "For some reason when I try to read I find the narrative almost becomes part of my reality. I have to avoid nonfiction books, especially triggering ones. I wonder if this is because there's not the usual amount of holidays/evenings out and gatherings filling up my consciousness."
For Lucy and Barnaby, reading no longer provides a sense of relief or certainty – instead it takes up time that their anxious brains want to spend seeking normalcy. For them, not reading is a small way of finding something that they can control.

For some reason when I try to read I find the narrative almost becomes part of my reality. I have to avoid nonfiction books, especially triggering ones. I wonder if this is because there's not the usual amount of holidays/evenings out and gatherings filling up my consciousness.

Lucy, 31
This reaction is part of the larger impulse that anxious situations bring out in us – we try to resolve uncertainty by seeking answers or comfort and avoiding situations that make us feel worse. You can see this in the doomscrolling phenomenon. "There's a lot to be said for being distracted from reading a novel by doomscrolling or whatever people call it," says Oliver. "You're trying to resolve your uncertainty by looking for solutions in the 24 hour news cycle but you're never going to resolve that." He’s keen to add that this impulse isn’t intrinsic to social media per se. "Humans have to try to resolve that uncertainty in the way or resolve the anxiety. But when it's fundamentally unresolvable, you hit a problem."
Negotiating these worries and trying to alleviate them in small ways takes up your already limited brain capacity. And that eats into your attention.
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Our attention span is a limited resource. In the digital age, it's a resource we have learned to divide between the constant chirp of notifications. Many people have tried to find ways to claw back their attention span – from using the Pomodoro focusing technique to seeing attention as something you can budget. The depletion and division of our attention is nothing new but these instincts pulling us in different directions feel more heightened now that we’re constantly seeking some kind of mental or emotional relief. Investing emotional energy in reading feels far harder when funny TikToks, rewatching shows or just scrolling Twitter could offer a moment of respite.
Without the full capacity to pay attention, the perceived energy you’d need to put into reading is much more intimidating. This perceived energy is known as cognitive load – the amount of mental effort we perceive to be involved in an activity. When something is perceived as having a bigger cognitive load, we are likely to look for the easier option, even if it means we get less out of the action as a result.
On top of the cognitive load of reading, mental health problems like depression and anxiety often hamper willingness to engage in something effortful. Lack of interest in doing things you previously found rewarding even has a name. It is called anhedonia and is part of the diagnostic criteria for depression. "It's all tied together with this cognitive effort and apathy," says Oliver, "not wanting to put a little bit of a perceived bit of effort into something."
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"It's also about the benefit/reward threshold," he adds. "Previously you might be willing to put that little bit of effort in because you get that extra reward from reading the book. But if you don't care about the reward anymore because you're anhedonic or you're miserable or you've got other things on your mind, then you’re not going to bother."

In the current environment, the idea that we should read adds to the pressure we put on ourselves to focus. Like trying to force a beach ball under the waves, the harder we push to concentrate, the more aggressively it bounces back and splashes us in the face.

Despite the number of obstacles, the pressure we put on ourselves to read remains high. As something that is ‘good for you’ and requires a lot of time, the scene for reading seems set with the constant lockdowns. But in the current environment, the idea that we should read adds to the pressure we put on ourselves to focus. Like trying to force a beach ball under the waves, the harder we push to concentrate, the more aggressively it bounces back and splashes us.
With the barriers between us and happily reading a mixture of self-imposed and out of our control, it’s worth asking if there’s a point to trying to force reading on ourselves right now. Arguably there isn’t. Getting through one of the most tumultuous times of our lives means finding relief and distraction however you can. If that’s in a clunking great novel, then more power to you. But if that feels impossible, there’s a reason why audiobooks are widely available. The cognitive load of pressing play on an audiobook is far less than that of reading a physical book and the process of ‘reading’ can form a backdrop to any other activity that makes you feel better – whether that’s scrolling Instagram, going for a walk or lying catatonic on the sofa.
Now is not a time to put undue pressure on ourselves to reconfigure our attention spans and reconcile global anxieties. It is a time to find joy in stories however you can – whether that is revisiting YA fiction you loved as a child, getting really into audiobooks or creating a routine where you read for 15 minutes every other day. The less we berate ourselves for letting our eyes glaze over or slip off the page, the better.

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