Anxiety stopped me from reading a book for over a decade

When I was thrust into the real world after graduation, I just stopped reading (Picture: Getty)

I have a confession. It’s something that I’ve kept secret for a long time now and I’m certainly not proud of it. I fear that coming clean may risk future employment as a writer, but I have always strived for my column to be as honest it as can be. 

I haven’t read a book in 10 years.

Not one.
Not a whiff of fiction. In fact, no non-fiction either and over the last few
weeks I’ve been trying to figure out why.

I used to
love reading at school. I was that show-off in primary school who graduated to
‘proper’ books whilst the rest of the class were was still spending time with
Roger Red Hat and Billy Blue Hat, Biff, Chip and Kipper. (If you’re unaware of
these cartoon legends then I envy your youth).

I was reading teen fiction before I was a teenager. Mrs Mayhew snuck me a copy of Melvin Burgess’ Junk and I learned about love, heartache and the sheer sh*ttery of living at the precipice of adulthood. The books I read prepared me for my own journey to becoming a grown-up but when I was thrust into the real world after graduation, I just stopped reading.

It’s not
like I didn’t read anything at all. As a drama graduate I read scripts and play
texts to keep my head in the theatrical game, but this was all for work, for
auditions: for a purpose. I read countless online articles – the one night
stands of the written word –  to keep my intellectual juices flowing, but
I lacked the required commitment for a hardback.

I had built up so much pressure on myself to read a book from cover to cover that I had developed ‘reader’s block’

It felt like reading novels was a luxury. Something I couldn’t allow myself time to do. The thought of sitting and reading for fun – indulging in fantasy – gave me an overwhelming sense of guilt. Working two jobs to pay rent and juggling some semblance of a social life with whatever relationship I was stuck in at the time meant that every minute needed justification.

When friends asked what I was reading, I would reel off the titles I devoured back in senior school. One of them became suspicious about how long it was taking me to get through Of Mice and Men. When I told her the truth she was gobsmacked. She had envisioned me as a book nerd with a coffee in one hand and a well-fingered paperback in the other. I do fit that stereotype… but only as a fraud.

I reassured
myself that once I was financially secure, I would allow time for literary
frivolity. Now in my thirties I’m still financially unstable and have missed
out on a decade of reading.

As a writer, I’m all-too aware of the phenomenon that is ‘writer’s block’ but I had built up so much pressure on myself to read a book from cover to cover that I had developed ‘reader’s block’. Reading is essential to expand the mind and exercise your creative muscles. The novelist Stephen King once said, ‘If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the tools to write’, and his words echoed in my mind. But whenever I set-aside time for reading, I found myself making excuses and popping on Netflix instead. Perhaps this is particularly symptomatic of city life, especially living in London. It can be difficult to truly switch off.

I set aside time before bed to get through a chapter and I found myself nodding off in a far happier state of mind

Reading required more concentration than my anxious brain was capable of. TV was easy as it stimulated both my eyes and ears and was therefore all encompassing. Podcasts were great as I could listen whilst getting on with housework so I didn’t feel guilty for not being productive. I thought that taking time out to read was selfish, pointless and that my time could be spent far more effectively while I scrolled through videos of Stormi Jenner’s second birthday party on instagram.

Enough was

the right book was like dating. I had a few flings with novels that looked good
on the cover, but we just didn’t click. I needed to see what else was out
there. It’s not them, it’s me.

Then, on a Tuesday afternoon, I absentmindedly walked into a bookshop. I browsed through a few paperbacks and gave the spines a cheeky sniff for my satisfaction. Nothing smells as good as a freshly printed book and Waterstones should probably start charging for it. I stumbled across a book with a title I recognised: ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’.  I’d seen it on the bookshelves of friends, and whose taste I respected, so I bought a copy. 

Reader; I loved it. Not just the story, but the process of reading itself. I set aside time before bed to get through a chapter and found myself nodding off in a far happier state of mind. In an overstimulating world there is something so peaceful about a book. No ad breaks, no clickbait, just words on a page. It was good for my mental happiness.

I used to
be one of those people who didn’t see the logic in making your bed; I was just
going to mess it up again that evening. But sometimes illogical things are good
for the psyche and is emblematic of self-care and respect.

I still
find it a bit difficult to concentrate. Reading is a helpful signifier of where
my brain is at. I’ve noticed that when I’m stressed, I struggle to read. My
mind wanders and I do that thing where I get to the bottom of a page and
realise I hadn’t taken a single word on board. Like most things we find
difficult in life, it takes time and practice but I’m slowly getting better at

I regret the years I’ve missed out on reading. I have a lot of catching up to do, but I’m useless at judging a book by its cover, so if you have any recommendations then please feel free to throw them my way.

For any of you out there who struggle to keep their focus whilst reading: firstly, congratulations on getting to the final paragraph. Secondly, don’t beat yourself up about it like I did. Perhaps reading just isn’t for everyone all the time. Maybe there will come a moment when it feels easy, maybe there won’t. Or maybe your perfect match simply hasn’t been written yet.

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