Reader’s Block

What to do when you lose your appetite for books?


There’s always a lot of talk about writer’s block, but I think there is such a thing as reader’s block, too. Especially in an era of smartphones, streaming media, and ubiquitous Wi-Fi, our information-overloaded brains can freeze up and refuse to take in any more.

The result is we can lose our appetite for reading books. Nothing appeals. All the attractive covers, compelling blurbs, or intriguing first sentences in the world can’t sustain our interest long enough to actually plunge into a new book.

Instead, we leaf through a magazine, linger over the newspaper, careen through the Internet, or just watch more TV. Neither the latest literary wunderkind nor the most facile thriller writer can hold our attention.

I’m going through such a phase right now. After a relatively steady diet of literary fiction mixed in with thrillers, detective stories, and occasional dabbling in nonfiction, I’ve hit a brick wall.

I finished one of M.L. Longworth’s Provençal mysteries, Murder on the Ile Sordou — which my wife considers somewhat trite but which I find entertaining enough as a cozy mystery — and then lost my appetite for reading.

I’ve rifled through my many stacks of unread books. I looked at David Mitchell’s latest book, Slade House, and Louis Bayard’s 2014 novel, Roosevelt’s Beast, but they seemed too rich or too offbeat for right now. I considered a second Longworth mystery, Death in the Vines — not rich enough. I went back to the classics, aiming to tackle Middlemarch for the first time (too slow) or finally reading Richard Howard’s translation of the Stendhal classic, The Charterhouse of Parma (too arcane).

I browsed through my wife’s extensive library, thinking perhaps the different prism of her choices would jar me out of my lethargy. But so far, I’ve failed to get any traction from the books I thought looked interesting: Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi, Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano, and Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford.

I looked at nonfiction, downloading Jane Mayer’s Dark Money; no dice. I downloaded a new political thriller by one of my former editors, David Shirreff, called Vulkan, but somehow got bogged down in the plot’s intricacies.

In short, I haven’t found the answer to reader’s block. I’m hoping it’s just a passing phase, due perhaps to the disruption of a kitchen renovation or the confusion of the bizarre presidential campaign I’m covering as a columnist, and that any of these books will one day soon draw me back into the comfortable world of fiction.

Reading, after all, demands a certain amount of serenity, a settled-ness that modern life does its best to undermine. It is a moody exercise at the best of times — it’s why we take several books with us on a trip, far more than we can read in the time we’re away, to make sure something will match the moment.

One blogger offers a number of solutions for writer’s block, and some of them may well be applicable to reader’s block. These include going for a walk; eliminating distractions (easier said than done); playing, running, or other exercise to get your blood flowing; changing your environment; listening to music; and brewing some coffee. He also suggests reading a book, so perhaps having a stab at writing a novel could inspire (frighten) a blocked reader into looking for some decent writing.

Reading, like writing, is a creative exercise. It may be more passive than writing, but it is not completely passive, because the reader’s imagination is engaged in translating the author’s words into pictures or concepts. So some of these tips to overcome writer’s block and make room for creativity may in fact help. Or it may just be a question of waiting it out.

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