Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – few spaces left and I’m not doing it again!

“Lost my reading mojo”

I recently asked you what you’d like me to write about. And a reader (let’s call her Emma) emailed me as follows (my bolds):
“I’d love your perspective on why I’ve lost my reading mojo, and what I can do to get it back.
I’ve always been a bookworm, studied Literature at uni, and fully believe in the importance of reading to fuel and improve my own creative writing. For the last 20-odd years I’ve recorded every book I’ve read, even lovingly copied out my favourite lines (after loved ones, my reading notebooks are the first things I’d save in a fire!). I also used to make a point of finishing every book I started.
That changed in lockdown. Despite my eagerness to  preorder the final book in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, I just couldn’t get into it. Same with Hamnet – both books I would normally gobble up. I kept starting new books and tossing them aside.
At the same time I started reading fewer classics and more recently published novels, vaguely conscious of a need to see ‘what’s out there… what’s doing well…’ to help my own hopes of being published. That didn’t help my DNF rate.
I also turned 40 around then, and wonder if getting older has something to do with that shift – that life’s too short to persevere with books you’re not enjoying? In any case I now have several tottering TBR piles. How do I tackle/ignore them, around the time pressures of having little kids plus my own writing, which feels like it occupies the same headspace?
Thanks for any insights!”
I love this question for a number of reasons. For a start, it resonates with me as I, too, have lost my reading mojo. Secondly, it makes me happy when people understand that the science of reading is one of my “things”! It’s not something I often get the opportunity to write about, although I am quite often invited to give talks on it to librarian or educational conferences.
The talks I give on the science of reading for pleasure are invariably about how we create and build children who read for pleasure. But here we have an adult who has always read for pleasure and now doesn’t. So the questions are why has it gone and how to get the pleasure back?

When I was thinking how to answer this, I jotted down some notes:

  • Identity as a Reader
  • Life is flux – identities change
  • Habits – good and bad – stimulus generalisation
  • Reading requires concentration
  • Concentration is fractured by stress/anxiety
  • Reading requires time
  • Time is fractured by other demands
  • Reading as a writer – when reading becomes work
  • Reading in the modern world – competitive, public, judgmental, overwhelming

Let me see if I can put those thoughts together without writing a book. (Now, there’s an idea.)

Identity as a Reader

I deliberately used a capital R for Reader because I think Emma’s identity as a reader is key to how she sees herself. For whatever reasons, reading has been a huge part of her life and a way that she anchors herself and values her mind. It may be pleasure but a part of the pleasure is in the self-esteem it gives her. She’s built certain rules into that: she must record in writing everything she’s read and always finish a book even if she’s not enjoying it.

Or, rather, it’s a key to how she saw herself. But now that is in competition with the other things she is: for example, mother. Worker. Adult, responsible.

She’s also a writer, hoping to be published. Writers read – Emma knows that. They read because they love reading but they also read in order to be expert in the genre they write in. They need to know what’s out there in order that what they write doesn’t repeat what’s out there and yet fits with what’s being published now, not what was published 100 years ago.

Now, her vital identity a a Reader is being threatened. Emma can’t get into books and doesn’t always finish them. She’s doubting her status as Reader. She might be worrying what is wrong with her but, more, she wants to know what to do about it. She wants to get her reading mojo back.

In order to do that she’s going to need to unpick a few things, re-evaluate what a Reader is and why reading has changed its position in her life. Whether and how she can still be a reader and yet also the other important things that she is.

Life is flux – identities change

Everything changes. Sometimes they change in ways we want and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we can do something about it and sometimes we can’t. It’s a thought which is both comforting (when we’re in a bad situation or feeling negative emotions) and discomforting (when something’s going swimmingly.)

Emma is still a Reader with a capital R. She’s just adapting to some enormous changes around her. When she’s done that, she’ll see she’s still a Reader, but a different Reader. Maybe even a better (happier) one.

The changes around Emma (and me):

  • Stage of life: she has children, for a start. In my case grandchildren: 3 and one on the way; none arrived with plain sailing.
  • She’s becoming “older” – to me, turning 40 is a distant memory but yes, we are all getting older and each new decade brings its pressures. In my case, I’m 61 and feel a great urgency to achieve more, quickly, and yet I’m tired!
  • The pandemic/lockdown – it affected us all differently and I was very lucky but no one escaped; it was scary, distracting, distressing; it made us think and we’ve not finished that thinking yet.
  • Reading in the modern world is different – I’ll come to that below.
  • The internet and social media – it’s so much easier to scroll through our timelines than bury ourselves in a book. I know I’ve become addicted and the more I scroll the less I read books.
  • Whatever personal changes are affecting our life/work/family/friendships etc. We have to adapt to these changes. We are not Readers in a vacuum.

My suggestion in response to the changing identity as a Reader is to suggest that there are many sorts of Reader and they do not all have to record what they have read or follow rules about finishing every book. They do  not need to read in the way they read when they were 10 or 20 and they may again read differently when they are 70 or 80.

How about some new “rules” for Emma:

  • Instead of being in thrall to the tottering TBR pile, why not cull all the ones you don’t really want to read and then just have on display the one you’re reading. The rest go on a shelf, not in easy view. Ditch the To Be Read and embrace the To Be Relished.
  • And instead of even thinking of TBR books, allocate a piece of time each day/week for reading.
  • When advising schools, I advocate creating “time, space and permission” to read – a designated time (eg half an hour after lunch), a special place (eg a comfy chair) and permission (“this is your time to read – you are allowed because you are a Reader”.)
  • No book requires to be finished: give it 50 pages (or fewer, in my opinion) and if it doesn’t hold you, let it go. There are too many books you’d love to read without spending time on the ones that aren’t working for you. It’s not a TBF pile!
  • Realise that some books are genuinely for your pleasure and others are ones you feel you ought to read – that’s OK but treat those latter ones as work: concentrate and self-reward when done
  • Do you really need to record everything? Can you reduce the records? Only record books you loved? Just write a one-line comment?
  • Switch off the internet and put your phone completely away!

You are still a Reader – you’re just doing it differently, and possibly better.

Habits – good and bad – stimulus generalisation

I wrote about this here.

What you will take from this is that by creating a different space which is for reading, you trigger a new set of good habits around reading.

Reading requires

concentration

and

Concentration is fractured by stress/anxiety

Reading a book requires more concentration – more “brain bandwidth” – than most other things that we do, and certainly more than reading a few messages or news stories on our phones. Brain bandwidth refers to a finite resource in the brain: our attention span or what we can focus on at any one time. I’ve written about it here.
There are some things which are known to reduce brain bandwidth and make it harder to focus, especially on things that are difficult (such as reading). Stress and anxiety are among the leaders in the list of things that make concentration hard because they occupy inordinate amounts of bandwidth. You will doubtless have experienced that when something is upsetting or preoccupying you, whether an emotional upset or a complex problem to solve, you find it harder to concentrate on something else or direct your attention to a desired task.

What can we do about this?

Sometimes, we just have to ride it out. But, when possible, we should intervene thus.

  • Go easy on yourself: recognise and validate how you feel – it’s a normal, healthy (though unpleasant) reaction to stress or whatever the situation is.
  • Remove any possible distractions, such as phone/social media; go to the quietest place you can find; do whatever is possible to create the peace you need.
  • Negotiate with other members of your household for that “time, space and permission” to read.
  • Act on the stress/anxiety itself by taking physical exercise and managing your breathing – I have a book coming out on this later this year, called No Worries, but there’s plenty of advice on this website. For example, here.

Reading requires time

and

Time is fractured by other demands

Clearly, if we don’t make time for reading, reading can’t happen. And we all seem to be so busy these days! Whatever age group and stage of life you’re in, modern life just is very, very demanding and time-consuming. When I had small children, pre-internet/email/social media, I had time for hobbies such as mosaic-making, glass-painting and reading. Now, I seem not to be able to do any of those things, despite my children having long flown the nest.

What can we do about this?

There is only one answer: decide to find time. Sometimes, you won’t be able to but there is almost always something that you could do less of in order to do more of what you want to do. If reading really is a priority, you can find a way to make it happen.

Remember: time, space, permission.

Reading as a writer – when reading becomes work

This won’t apply to many of you but it applies to Emma and to me. When you’re a writer, whether already published or not, it can be very hard to read purely for pleasure. You might find yourself thinking any of these things:

  • This is so brilliant – I’ll never write this well
  • This is rubbish – why was it published?
  • Oh damn! That’s what I was planning to do so now I can’t
  • Ah, that’s how you make XYZ work – I could try that
  • That’s interesting – I thought you weren’t supposed to do that
  • Oh, look at that broken rule – naughty writer!
  • Hmm, I don’t think that works – now I need to work out why

What can we do about this: separate reading for pleasure from reading for work. Remind yourself which you’re doing. And do enough reading for pleasure. If your work-related reading is genuinely pleasurable, great! But if it isn’t, recognise that. It’s still important, just not pleasurable.

Reading in the modern world – competitive, public, judgmental, overwhelming

There are too many books! That’s not new but what is new is how the vast numbers are thrown at us, forced in front of our face, accusingly, demanding that we read them. We are bossed and coerced into thinking we “should” be reading all these books. In the “old days”, you’d have occasional and limited views of piles of books – limited to where your feet could carry you. But now our internet-enabled experience of everything is so much wider, richer, more wonderful – but often overwhelmingly so. More choice does not make life better!

It can feel like a competition: everyone’s reading more than me or better than me or having more fun.

It’s not private any more: Amazon sends me recommendations; I should be in a book club, discussing books with friends; everyone writes their opinions in a review.

There was probably always a judgmental aspect to reading, beginning with parents judging their children for not reading a “hard enough” book, but now that can feel quite public because reading itself has become public. It’s public because it can be: I can tell the world I’m reading Moby Dick, so I will.

For a serious reader – as Emma is – it can feel overwhelming because it’s increasingly obvious that you will NEVER read enough; you will never finish that TBR pile.

This brings me to the crux of the problem – and the solution

Emma, you will never finish your TBR pile. Never. It’s a pointless aim and doing you no favours at all. It’s dragging you through books, unwillingly, removing the pleasure but constantly reminding you of what you still have to do.

You do not have to do it.

Instead have a LTR pile: Love To Read. These are the books you really want to read. You’re looking forward to them. You want them. You crave the time for them.

And as soon as you are not loving reading the one you are reading, stop.

An extra thought

Have you had the experience of re-reading a book you once enjoyed and feeling quite different about it from how you felt the first time? That’s because reading is partly a two-way process. You, as the reader, bring yourself to the book. You process the words through your mind – your mind as it is now. The writer does not have total control over the reader. So, if you are not enjoying this book right now, it might be because your mind is not in the right place for it.

What to do about that? Go and do something else. Clear your mind with some gardening or running or walking or bread-making or making mosaics or visit an art gallery or listen to a concert. Let go.

You are still a Reader. You thought you’d lost your way but you’re just finding a different path. It might be a more interesting one.

You are still a Reader if you don’t read for pleasure today. You will always be a reader until you decide not to be. And I doubt you’ll do that.

Reading for pleasure is not about what is To Be Read but what you Love To Read.

But when you do want to read, remember to make Time, Space and Permission for yourself.


Thank you to “Emma” and to the others who replied to my request for ideas of what to write about. I’d rather lost my writing mojo as well as my reading one!
Oh, and what am I reading right now? Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus – absolutely loving it. Reading it slowly but partly because I don’t want to finish it.

Final thought: it doesn’t matter whether you are reading quickly or slowly. It’s the doing it and loving it that counts.

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.

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