Please help me!
All my life I have been a great reader. I was the kind of kid who haunted the local library and read books under the covers with a flashlight after lights out. In college I always did the recommended as well as the required reading, even in courses like Rhetoric in the Sixteenth Century. Reading one or two literary novels a week is pretty much what got me through business school, and in the years since then my favorite escape has always been to a bookstore, for browsing and sampling and reckless purchasing. My house, and now my devices, are bursting with books.
But although the books still trickle in—gifts, usually or late-night whims ordered from my phone—I seem to have hit some kind of wall. Without noticing it while it was happening, I have stopped reading, except for work and some magazines and on-line news articles. A few weeks ago I realized that it had been almost six months since I read a novel, or any non-work book all the way through, and that last one was for a book group where I was presenting.
When I try to read in bed, I fall asleep. When I try to sit in a chair and read, I usually lose my concentration, or remember something else I should be doing. When I listen to books in the car, my mind wanders and I have to keep replaying stuff until I am out of patience and just switch to music or a podcast. I tried setting aside some time in the morning before work, but that was a bust because I cannot survive without checking my email and other media as soon as I wake up, and once that happens I am gone—all caught up in emailing my coworkers, reading a link to some story about the latest presidential scandal, making an angry call to my senator, playing Solitaire to calm down, etc.
I feel as if I have lost a whole world, and a part of myself. Any ideas?
—Degenerating in Dover, Delaware
Dear D in DD,
Could you be depressed? I am not an expert in clinical psychology, but every depression screener I have ever seen asks whether the subject has lost interest in, or no longer enjoys, activities that used to be pleasurable. Another standard question is whether it has become harder to concentrate. Although you write about just one area where you’ve experienced these changes, it’s an area that used to be central to your life. This, along with your letter’s tone of sadness and powerlessness, and your new distractibility, are signs that you may have some sort of depression or dysthymia that goes beyond reading. I suggest consulting a therapist, or your primary doctor.
I can think of a whole menu of possible reasons why non-required reading is getting harder for you—any of which may be manifestations of, or coexist with, or contribute to, some broader problem like depression or anxiety, but any of which could also just be its own à la carte obstacle.
One biggie is electronic devices and their ever-increasing addictiveness. Flitting around on-line, bouncing between games and news and stores and social media and puppies playing with fawns, to say nothing of all those places where some life-changing communication about your job may be lurking—is so much more seductive than sustained reading, especially if your resistance is already down thanks to the sleep deprivation your devices help cause. And it doesn’t help that there are legions of people out there whose lives are devoted to grabbing your attention.
I urge you to work out some new strategy to free up fifteen or twenty minutes’ sustained fiction-reading time every morning before you look at any of your devices. Do you think you could try jumping out of bed as soon as your alarm (preferably on a dedicated clock) goes off? Once on your feet, dash into the bathroom, splash water on your face and/or brush your teeth, pee if you need to, and head for the chair near which you have left some worthy but not-terribly-challenging book whose place you bookmarked the day before. If this seems utterly impossible—if you are sure you’ll never be able to concentrate until you know about some work deadline, the latest nuclear threat, or the number of likes on your Schnauzer’s recent Instagram post—I suppose you could try setting a second alarm, or hitting your snooze button, and checking your devices only during that interval–as long as you can manage to make yourself jump up after the second ring. I doubt if I could, especially given how crazy and scary the news is these days.
The crazy, scary news, whether you get it from a device or a print source or even an actual live human, is another biggie. Every day seems to bring another cause for anger and fear, another urgent problem to work on—or at least to read about endlessly and feel guilty about not working on. Just keeping up with the daily barrage of outrages, much less doing anything about them, can feel like a full-time job, leaving no time and little calm for sustained reading of literature.
I strongly believe that we should not turn away from what’s happening in our country. But everyone needs restoration and perspective. In your case and mine, reading fiction has been a source of both for most of our lives. Hard as it may be to resist the horrible fascination of current events, the “great readers” of the world need to find ways to keep non-required reading alive. It is good for our mental health, good for writers, good for the culture—so in that sense it is “required” of us.
Not in an eat-your-vegetables way, though. This is a time in your fiction-reading life when it is fine to start with pie and ice cream and wine and tortilla chips. Just go for good pie, etc. Good genre fiction, for example. Literary novels you’ve heard are suspenseful, or romantic, or exotic, or whatever it is you like best. Novels you love to reread. Some of the many great YA books. Rereading beloved novels and stories can work, and so can reading aloud to a loved one (and perhaps being read to, unless you are easily lulled). And what about well-written nonfiction or poetry, for variety’s sake, at least as a stopgap?
This may not have anything to do with the problem you are experiencing, but I have noticed, and others have have pointed out to me, that reading literary fiction feels lonelier than it used to. It is getting harder and harder to find a brick and mortar bookstore; and for every book your friends are discussing there are half a dozen movies or hot, critically-acclaimed TV series. Reading a novel can feel a bit like hitching up old Dobbin when everybody else is opening the app that summons their self-driving hybrid. One remedy for this sort of isolation and discouragement is, of course, the book club. You mentioned that you did manage to read a book when you were the presenter at your club. Can you present more often? Join another club?
Despite all this talk about clinical symptoms and national politics and trends, your reading problems may actually have one or more simpler causes. Your eyes may be changing. If they are, words on the page may be harder to follow. Or you may need more light than you used to—which may be part of what sends you off to your bright, clear devices and opens you up to all their distractions. Farsightedness—the dreaded “presbyopia”—can start earlier in life than most people think, as can several other vision problems.
Or you may be sleep-deprived, whether from anxiety or apnea or plain old overwork (or, again, taking your devices to bed). Insufficient sleep can seriously mess up your concentration. And—even if you can usually still concentrate like all get out—when you are tired, and stressed from a long day, and finally sitting in a soft chair at home, doing what you have done all your life for comfort and consolation—viz., reading a work of fiction—it is easy to see how you can drift off.
Or you may be at a time in your life when you are stressed or overextended in ways you’ve never had to cope with before. Kids and job? Kids and job and the current administration? Losses, aging parents, financial worries, student loans? If so, cut yourself a break. Try not to give up entirely on reading fiction for pleasure, but don’t let your struggles to get lost in a book become yet another source of anxiety. Make reading as easy for yourself as you can.
To sum up: Do try to lighten up on the electronics, and check out any of the possible mental and physical issues I’ve raised that sound plausible to you. But I am sure you will be fine. With time, patience, and a little effort, fiction will bring you joy again. You may just be going through an interlude of podcasts and posts until the right book comes along and revives your interest. Enthusiasm tends to ebb and flow, and yours happens to be at an ebb. I would not read too much into it.
La Wally’s response:
Not reading and not being happy are different. People change, bodies and minds change. If D in DD can find other ways to be happy, then where’s the problem? If not, they should try harder to read. June can probably help with that.
I have my share of strong emotions, but have been told that I am on the uptight, reserved end of the spectrum. My best friend Jasmine, not so much. I find her expressive and touchy-feely to a fault. She thinks otherwise and just went off to a week-long retreat to where you “get in touch with your feelings” by playing trust games and drinking wine in hot tubs and telling twenty total strangers your innermost thoughts and deepest secrets. I would rather spend a week stuck in an elevator.
Now that she is back she is after me to tell her what I consider her faults: all the things about her that irritate me or that I think she should try to change. She says that true friends do not sugarcoat the truth, and that the deepest relationships take work.
So I told her that what bothered me most about her at present was her nagging me about “clearing the air,” as she puts it. But apparently this does not get me off the hook because it is a complaint about the process itself. Oy. Then she announced that she would start, and told me that it really annoyed her that I talk so much about my family. She was about to tick off another item on what I suspect was a good-sized list of my shortcomings, but I told her to stop right there, that I already knew about plenty of areas for self-improvement and did not want to learn about any more just at the moment. She decided that she was cool with my being that way, but says that she feels differently and is demanding what she calls “complete honesty” from me.
What am I supposed to do? There are plenty of things about Jasmine that irritate me. She is forever singing along, loudly and not very well, and drowning out whatever music happens to be playing. She is a serious humble-bragger. She always insists on itemizing every last item on checks when we go Dutch, and prorating the tax and tip. She jumps in with her own suggestions when I am talking and have trouble finding the right word. I could go on—in fact, I am starting to get into it. But I have no desire to tell her about any of this stuff. I love her the way she is, and will be fine if she never changes. I also don’t want to hurt her feelings or start any arguments.
—Pressured in Prescott
I’m with you here. Mum’s the word. Ixnay on the aultsfay. The picture your letter gives of Jasmine and your relationship with her convinces me that giving her what she’s asking for would be a terrible idea. For one thing, she may not really want complete honesty about her shortcomings so much as reassurance that you don’t see any, or at least not anything major. Her humble-bragging, and the very fact that she is being so persistent in her quest, strongly suggest that there is an insecure heart beating beneath Jasmine’s overbearing, singing, interrupting exterior.
And even if, unlike about 99% of the people I’ve come across, your friend genuinely wants to see herself as others—you, anyway—see her, that doesn’t mean your telling her the truth, the whole, truth, etc., would turn out well. Telling her about any, much less all, of the things about her that bother you could put a strain on your relationship if the two of you never allude to the matter again—or lead to words one or both of you would regret if you do. Or it might make her unhappy, or cramp her style. Take the singing, for example. As long as it doesn’t really get to you, why not let her keep enjoying herself without getting all self-conscious about her voice and maybe going silent? (I do realize that I am making a big leap here. If you think that Jasmine would just laugh off any comments on her singing, or actually sing more softly but with equal gusto, disregard this particular bit of advice.) Your friend might end up doing a lot of second-guessing of herself, or even of your regard for her. And of course she could get angry—even feel betrayed—if the unvarnished opinions she demanded turn out to be more than she bargained for.
I’m not saying that, if anything she does really bothers you, you should not speak up. One day you may find that you’ve lost all patience with something about her—my candidate would be her habit of jumping into conversational pauses and putting words in your mouth. If you do become seriously annoyed, you should of course let her know. (Suggestion: start with good-humored protests the next few times she does whatever it is. If she persists, object more seriously in some later conversation where you can recollect the emotion in tranquility.) But objecting to a single habit or quality that is seriously bothering you is totally different from presenting your friend with a laundry list of negatives, none of which appears to pose any threat to your friendship.
Now on to the harder part: how to resist? A simple refusal doesn’t seem to be working. Is there any chance she will lose interest and/or move on to some other enthusiasm? If so, I would suggest just putting her off a while longer with semi-jokes and evasions and the like. “You know I think all my friends are perfect.” Or, if she would like something edgier: “Oh, I couldn’t, Jasmine—the list would go on for days.” Or: “You know I don’t even know how to think about stuff like that. I’m way too uptight.”
If she persists, you might try turning the tables: “Why does this matter so much to you? Is there something you’re afraid I’ll say?” I suppose this is a long shot, but if she is easily distracted as well as self-absorbed, it might take the place of your actually providing a fault inventory. You might also toss her a bone or two in the form of fairly innocuous, easily-fixed annoyances: perhaps there are some particular song lyrics she gets wrong, or maybe she is always forgetting her promise to have diet soda on hand when you come for lunch. But these may not satisfy her; besides, if you put these forward as all the habits you find annoying, you are being more deceitful than is strictly necessary.
My ideal answer—it may not work, but it’s heartwarming and honest—comes from some advice I think I got from my father, although he may have read it somewhere first (turns out he did not invent that joke about people who live in grass houses and stow thrones), or I may have read it somewhere myself and imputed it to him. Anyway, the basic idea is that people, and I guess friendships as well, are like fine watches. Why take the risk that tinkering with some small part of the beautiful, complex mechanism might affect the other parts in some unanticipated and possibly irreparable way?
If none of the other evasive tactics work, try the watch metaphor. Tell your friend that you honestly think she is without major fault. Reassure her that, if anything she says or does ever strikes you as really objectionable, or might harm your friendship, you will certainly let her know—but that, as things now stand, she is a fine Swiss mechanism, and so is your friendship, and they ain’t broke.
La Wally’s response:
You should say to Jasmine: “I don’t want to go there. That is not the kind of person I am, and you should respect that.” If she keeps after you until you can’t stand it any more, then is the friendship worth it?
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
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