Every night before bed I stare at my TBR pile. It's a mix of old and new - books I've been excited about for months, childhood favourites, books that caught my eye in the library. I don't even bother picking up my Kindle because that will just present another disheartening struggle - dozens of books I want to read, I know I want to read all these books...but I just can't. Reading has always felt like heart-work. It's a process of falling in love, feeling my heart fill up with new characters and new stories. It's not just my imagination that I feel light up when I read. It's my heart and maybe even my 'soul', if that's not too cheesy to admit (it is too cheesy...I'll be cringing eternally for that).
And yet when I'm staring at all the books I've chosen for my TBR, my heart feels flat. I find myself filled with a strange, unfamiliar kind of anxiety. My ritual of reading before bed is my most sacred time of self-care. It's a kind of therapy - even after the longest, most stressful or emotionally distressing days, I can vacate myself and my own feelings for a few moments; I take the final few moments of my day to give attention to stories as a way to remember that the world is larger, imaginary worlds astoundingly so. Sometimes I find my life and my feelings drift away and I can find them again in my dreams or when I'm rested, renewed for a new day. Other times I find that what I'm feeling is bleeding into the story and I can explore some of the difficult parts of life with the safe-distancing effect of fiction.
I have spent the past three years learning the degree to which certain life circumstances can affect my writing and my mental work. The existence of this blog is testament to the constancy of fiction's power to rise above the personal, temporal realm of everyday life. In fact the revitalisation of this blog in 2015 was during the period of most acute personal-struggle-meets-intellectual-alienation. Since then, I've experienced loss in my family, uncertainty in my personal life, and career stumbles. My family and my life has transformed over these years, and it's still transforming. Life is change. Reading, however, has always been constant.
Why now is there this faltering, stuttering, stop?
A 'reading slump' is the preferred term online. The bookish community has always accepted this as a part of the reading life - sometimes you just burn out on reading and you just have to wait it out, hope that it will get better with time. It's a terrifying uncertainty, an mysterious phenomenon. What if whatever it is that is burned out or broken in a reader doesn't heal itself over time? It's the same fear that strikes writers when we experience writer's block. It hits us at the very core of our identity. If I'm not reading, if I'm not a reader, then what is left? Who am I? It's an existential crisis.
A crisis isn't born of nothing or nowhere. I've been thinking a lot about how all mental work - reading, writing, or the variety of analysis found in other careers - is connected to something at the very core of ourselves. This is where 'burn out' can be a faulty concept. Working to the point of exhaustion, or stressing to the point of burn out, is not an easy thing. There's something that should be renewing this energy inside of me - the energy to care about stories, which is intertwined with my writing and my academic work and which reaches directly to my core (my 'heart centre' to quote my yoga instructor).
I can't help but feel that this reading slump, like writer's block and burn out, is not something to be ignored. It's a reminder that there's still internal, emotional work to be done.
Can you tell I'm missing my therapist in London?
I don't have any sage words of advice for anyone else struggling with a reading slump or writer's block. Well, except this - go talk to your therapist. That's what I'll be doing.
For now I'm still reading. I'm not giving up. I still pick a book and read a chapter before bed every night. And one of these days (well, nights) I know I'll start to feel that old magic at work again.