Stranger than Fiction: Falling Back in Love with Leisure Reading
As a child, I was constantly reading. It all started in primary school with a sticker-based reward system to encourage consistency, which, combined with my competitive mindset meant that I was HOOKED. Fast forward a few years and I was reading through the nights, until my parents started to notice that I was constantly tired during the days. What ensued was a cat-and-mouse game, which finally escalated with them confiscating the light bulb of my reading lamp on some evenings.
At some point it had gotten so bad that I wouldn’t even go to the supermarket without a book. Think Roald Dahl’s “Matilda”, but with less telekinetic abilities. One of my mom and dad’s more genius parenting moves involved taking me to a local library to sign up for a book club. This would make my constant hunger for new books more financially sustainable and would also force me to occasionally look up from the pages at what was going on around me.
Books dreaming of being picked up by a new reader.
My love for books was a constant companion throughout my school years and my studies at Uni. I was able to go to the large book fairs in Frankfurt and Leipzig each year to present the nominations of my book club for the German Youth Literature prize. Giving these presentations significantly improved my confidence in public speaking, something that is incredibly useful to this day. However, after finishing my master’s degree, my reading habits changed, first slowly, from picking up fewer and fewer novels to suddenly stopping altogether. What had happened?
I suspect that there are two main explanations: firstly, smartphones, social media and the internet consumed more and more of my time. Secondly, I was now still reading a lot, even every day, but these were journal articles and scientific books. Although crucially important for the literature review at the start of my PhD, it led to a new kind of mental exhaustion that I hadn’t experienced before. Now, when coming back home after reading academic papers on my computer all day, I didn’t have the same kind of motivation anymore to pick up something to read.
At the same time, I would still accumulate new novels from visits to Caledonia Books and Voltaire and Rousseau. There they were, in piles beneath my window, and I was starting to feel a bit annoyed with myself and even felt slightly judged by their silent presence in the room.
Note on the window of a cafe and poetry meetup space in Amsterdam.
While this is certainly a text-book example of a first world problem (no pun intended), I was wondering how I could start reading fiction again, while at the same time manage my PhD responsibilities, have other hobbies and projects, stay active and eat my greens. After all, there is plenty of scientific research showing that familiarity with fiction (not non-fiction), has been found to correlate with various beneficial outcomes towards social-cognitive abilities, such as perspective taking, empathizing and moral development. And it is certainly cheaper than purchasing an expensive virtual reality set-up in those situations where you want to transcend the limitations of your own human body and mind.
So, after conducting a very informal, non-representative survey among my peers and by trying out different strategies that worked for me, I have come up with some ideas on how to find time for reading within our busy schedules.
Book art displayed at the public library in Edinburgh.
One suggestion that I particularly liked, is taking yourself and your book to a new spot in town and spending some quality hours on a Saturday or Sunday just reading, uninterrupted from your phone and responsibilities. As someone, who prefers to read a book from start to finish, I’ve also noticed that I read a lot more during travel. Something about having to wait around a lot, being kind of isolated yet cosy on a train, bus or plane makes it easier to completely immerse myself in a story and not feel guilty about neglecting other PhD-related tasks. On a recent trip I was finally able to read the new novel by Sally Rooney (impossible to ignore in the UK, as it is currently displayed in every Waterstones wide and far), which is a thoughtful and very timely exploration of modern relationships.
Relatedly, another recommendation from a friend was to be very efficient with your time and find open slots in your daily schedule (during breakfast, after dinner), where you can spend half an hour or so reading. This will probably work a lot better for people who prefer to move from chapter to chapter a day at a time.
More sleepy books.
Another strategy that I am using is to make social media distractions work in my favour. Twitter and Instagram give me small titbits of fiction among endless scrolls of Brexit news updates, viral memes and cat videos. For example, I follow the Twitter account Micro SF/F stories that regularly posts surprising and wonderful tweets about dragons, robots and the like. And, I follow Rupi Kaur on Instagram, who occasionally will upload a poem from her two published collections.
I’ve also ventured off the trodden path and engaged with different (and shorter) forms of fiction, such as short stories, online comics and graphic novels. Personally, I love the “Descender” series by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen, which both looks beautiful and tells an intriguing tale of rogue robots and helpless humans struggling to keep the upper hand.
Other ideas, which may help you commit to a book that you started, include joining a book club (virtual or real), reading to your younger family members, bringing books along on the commute and, this one is a bit ‘out there’, visiting the famous Welsh booktown Hay-on-Wye, which is guaranteed to help you re-experience the magic of a fictional world.
I would like to thank Ruud Hortensius, Thora Bjornsdottir and Alexandra Eyfjörð for sharing their ‘reading hacks’ with me!
All pictures: Anna Henschel
Header image: Kohinoor Darda