I can’t stop reading

Ever since Lockdown 2 started, I’ve been devouring books. After reading only two books in September and two in October, I finished seven in November – and not just short ones. Station Eleven is more than 300 pages; The Little Stranger is 500.

I do normally read quite a lot, but this is ridiculous, bordering on compulsive. First thing in the morning, last thing at night, and for a good chunk of time in between, I’m reading. My time spent watching TV and films has plummeted in favour of books. I’m obsessed.

I’m not complaining, or saying it’s a bad thing – obviously I’m delighted to be reading so much. I’m also not trying to brag – everyone has their distractions, and clearly this is mine. It’s just a new thing for me to be reading this much, and I’ve been wondering exactly why I’m doing it.

The lockdown effect

First, of course, there’s the lockdown effect. The whole country went into Lockdown 2 on 5th November, and came out of it on 3rd December. Unfortunately, where I live, cases have been rising, so we came out of lockdown straight into the toughest level of government restrictions, Tier 3 – so basically still lockdown.

This obviously means that I’m not going out much, because nothing is open and there’s nothing to do. I live by myself, and I’m pretty good at spending long stretches of time on my own and keeping myself entertained. This usually involves a mixture of things – TV, gaming, crafting, walks, exercise videos when I can be bothered, and reading. But for the past month the reading chunk of that pie has ballooned.

It’s bloody cold and dark

Over the summer, there were still restrictions in place, but there were more options for things to do. I could go for more walks and cycle rides, stay out for longer, sit in the park with friends until night fell. Now it’s winter and it gets dark at 4:30 and I desperately hate the cold, so I’m staying at home a lot more. And home is where the books are.

To be clear, I do still have a social life – it’s conducted almost entirely through Zoom right now, but I’m not a total blanket-burrowing hermit. Still, quite often, the moment I get off a call, I’ll pick up my book and read.

Reading is escapism

The most obvious reason for this current reading obsession of mine is that it is a hugely effective form of escapism. At a time when I can’t physically leave my house as much as I’d like to, let alone do something wild like go on a day trip or even – heaven forfend – travel to another country, I have to go on imaginary ‘getaways’ instead.

Of course, TV and films also provide escapism, but I’ve been finding that reading is just the right level of absorbing for me at the moment. When I’m watching something, I find it very hard to just sit still and watch, so I usually have to craft or do something else at the same time – this is its own kind of meditation, but it does mean I’m not completely absorbed in one thing or the other, so I don’t fully escape into whatever I’m watching.

Reading, though, keeps my hands busy, and requires just enough mental work to make me imagine myself out of my living room and into whatever I’m reading. Quite a lot of the books I’ve been reading recently – The Pull of the Stars especially comes to mind – have given me the feeling of forgetting where I am and going somewhere else, which is obviously something we’re all craving after spending so long stuck in one place.

I’m reading really good books

It helps that I’ve hit a streak of really, really engaging books. Partly this is luck, partly great recommendations, and partly me knowing what I need to read right now. I’ve read some non-fiction in recent months, and while I do love non-fiction, it is slower for me and usually less visceral. Mostly I’ve been focusing on fast-paced, tightly plotted novels, with clearly drawn characters (probably fulfilling some urge to meet new people) and that ‘unputdownable’ quality that will make me sink hours into a story. I’m not worried about reading anything particularly ‘literary’ or ‘worthy’ – I just want books that make it impossible not to turn the page.

Is it OK to read this much?

Last night I had a 7:30 appointment to play an online game with some friends. Earlier that day I’d finished Station Eleven and started a new audiobook, It’s Not About the Burqa. At 7:00 my eyes drifted to the stack of books on my coffee table (why have I put them in such a tempting place?). I thought, “For god’s sake, don’t start another book. It’s only half an hour! Do something else!” Then I leaned forward and started another book.

I do wonder, as I’m burning through books, if it’s OK for me to be reading this much. Not because it’s a solitary activity and I should be out doing other things – the pandemic means we have to be solitary a lot of the time anyway, there is no ‘out’ or ‘other things’ to be doing, and obsessive reading has to be one of the healthiest coping mechanisms for all of this.

No, what I’m worried about is that I’m reading too fast, not appreciating the books enough. Ask me in three months anything about what I read during this time and I’ll likely only remember vague outlines. Should I feel bad about this? If I devour a book in a few days and forget it shortly after, have I somehow spoiled it for myself? Is it somehow a ‘lesser’ reading experience compared to if I had taken my time and savoured every detail?

I think the answer is no. I think the answer is, this is a once-in-a-century global event that has disrupted the lives of literally everybody on the planet, and we’re all scrambling to cope with it however we can. I think the answer is, if what I need is to indulge in escapism and burn through stories and not be able to write an essay about them half a year from now, who cares? For heaven’s sake, who do I think is going to test me on my pandemic reading?

It’s all pretty silly really, worrying about my reading habits given everything that’s going on in the world. Clearly I’m overthinking this. Clearly I’m much too in my own head about it. I should probably try and get away for a while.

I think I’ll go and read.

Cover image by Lenin Estrada on Unsplash.

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