Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Reader’s Block: a Public Service Announcement

Cat bookendsYou know Public Service Announcements, right? I’m not sure how much of a thing they still are, but I’m thinking about those adverts – usually around Christmas – where someone like Andie Macdowell will raise awareness (in a voice that manages to be both breathy and morose) of the perils of drink-driving or of some fashionable disease. Well, I’d like to do the same for Reader’s Block. (You may not be able to tell from the text, but trust me – it’s breathy and morose.)

(Man enters room filled with books.)

Simon’s voiceover: “This is Simon.” (Very meta) “He’s got a spare half an hour, so he’s going to read a book.”

(Man – a vastly more attractive version of me, ideally; I’m thinking Clooney or – if we’re on a budget – the less uncomfortable guy from The IT Crowd. Sorry, where was I… Man (yes) reaches for book and sits down.)

Voiceover: “But Simon won’t be reading a book today.”

(Man makes elaborate pantomime of not being able to read book.)

Voiceover: “Simon is experiencing what 30% of readers will experience this summer. He has Reader’s Block.”

(Man looks mournfully at camera for an awkwardly long period of time, while various phone numbers scroll across the bottom of the screen.)

Well, that’s enough of that. Because – all joking apart – I have recently had Reader’s Block, and it wasn’t fun. Not let’s-give-Clooney-a-ring levels of anguish, but pretty rubbish. I’ve mentioned it a few times on my own blog, and to other people, and they’ve divided into three camps: those who nod sympathetically and have had Reader’s Block, those who don’t know what I mean and are interested to know, and those (my brother, exclusively) who insist that it isn’t a thing. He won’t be saying that after seeing my PSA. (NB: he probably will.)

So, what is it?  It’s a step further than not being able to find anything to read.  We all start books that don’t grab us – probably a sizeable percentage of the books we pick up.  We’ll read a few pages, or a few dozen pages, and discard those that aren’t working.  But when I get Reader’s Block, I can’t even do that.  I pick up books and give them a go – even books I have been reading and enjoying – but can’t read more than a sentence or two.

My attention span dissolve; my ability to compute sentences into a narrative falters and fails.  It suddenly seems impossible that I have ever finished a book – that anybody has ever finished a book.  “Books have SO. MANY. WORDS!” I think, surprised that nobody has noticed this before. The whole publishing industry seems founded on an impossibility. (The irony is that I can still, apparently, read trashy articles online, magazines, blog posts etc. – but not novels, not biographies, nothing like that.)

Blessedly, there is an exception.  And it’s Agatha Christie.  I don’t know how I stumbled upon this, but in my last-but-one period of Reader’s Block (in May/June 2013) I went to the library and took out a handful and – miracle of miracles! – they worked.  I read seven on the trot, every now and then experimenting with a different author and realising the Block wasn’t over yet.

Why does it happen?  No idea.  It’s about every year or 18 months, and lasts between one and four weeks (the latest being the longest).  A couple of people have suggested that it’s related to finishing my DPhil, but I submitted last September and was only hit with Reader’s Block recently. (It has now, thankfully, passed – and my reading enthusiasm is back with abundance.)

Now, I have exaggerated the importance of Reader’s Block a bit.  I doubt George Clooney will turn his attention from dolphins and famine just yet.  Obviously it’s not in the league of cancer and life-threatening illness; it’s not as debilitating as depression.  To the vast majority of the public who seldom, if ever, pick up a book, the phrase is meaningless.

But, to me, it feels like it changes who I am.  I am not simply someone who reads – I am a Reader.  The Readers podcast discussed this distinction recently – a large part of how I define myself is that I read.  I love books, I love discussing books and having them around me.  I love buying them, choosing which to read next, and I LOVE READING.  When I can’t do that, it throws me.  My identity is changed, however temporarily.  That may sound silly – but identity is such an important thing, and a multi-faceted one, and having a cherished section of it damaged has its impact.

I hope that’s made Reader’s Block clearer to those who’ve never experienced it.  I hope, also, that it will give others (and here I take on the breathy tones again – but less morose; they have become soaringly hopeful) the courage to reveal themselves experiencers of Reader’s Block.  Have you had it?  Do you empathise?  Can we stand together, we band of readers, and raise awareness for the affliction that dare not – cannot – read its name?!


19 comments on “Reader’s Block: a Public Service Announcement

  1. Kate
    June 25, 2014

    Well, the advert pitch made me laugh! I can’t say that I’ve ever realised that I have Reader’s Block, but I do like to take a break from reading and get on with the knitting / embroidering / messing about in the kitchen, as if I’m instinctively not overdosing on the words, given that my jobs is words. Maybe that’s why RB hadn’t happened to me yet.

  2. Margaret Jones
    June 25, 2014

    Oh yes! I recognise this. Agatha Christie helps with me too. Or short stories, I can often find my way back into reading by giving short stories a go, and children’s books. Preferably something that’s familiar from my childhood. It’s no good trying to read something new, and there’s no point in fighting it, eventually it’ll pass. Though there’s always that horrible moment when you think – will I ever read again? Makes me come out in a cold sweat just thinking about it.

  3. Carol S
    June 25, 2014

    I do understand and have experienced reader’s block except that being a lifelong compulsive bookaholic, of the literary strand of the condition, I eventually explored other sorts of books and “reverted” very happily to children’s and YA literature and to nostalgic works – of the kind you love. I thought this last was my guilty secret and didn’t own up for years, I even had a, not hidden exactly but less obvious, shelf of 30/40’s novels. Elizabeth Goudge especially. Recently, through a long period of serious depression and other illness, I returned to crime, not really read since teenagerhood. I’ve discovered marvellous exciting challenging and atmospheric writing here: Peter May, John Harvey, always Ian Rankin and now Peter Temple. Their central characters are alive for me, fascinate. Children’s and YA work is almost always a successful and satisfying read and that surely is it – when at sea (mentally and energetically) being taken believably to harbour has been vital for me at least.
    Writing that works on all these levels is even better eg Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (haven’t ever managed to read Secret History – one day maybe)..
    Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, the Brontees, some Barbara Kingsolver, Jeffrey Eugenides, Amitav Ghosh, Amin Maalouf…. SO many many more….

  4. Annecdotist
    June 25, 2014

    Interesting! I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the phenomenon, but perhaps come quite near after reading a string of books that are okay but not spectacular, or reading too much on the same theme. Although I loved Agatha Christie as a child, I don’t think she’d work as a cure for my almost Readers Block – it needs to be something new and adventurous – but not too taxing – that I can connect to at an emotional level.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings
    June 25, 2014

    I *have* had readers block, but it doesn’t usually last so long as yours seems to. At least you’ve found a very worthy antidote – a month of reading Agatha *has* to be good!

  6. Annabel (gaskella)
    June 25, 2014

    I would suggest that it may be ‘deadline’ related! All those books you’ve said you’ll read for a certain other venture… I had a week of that too recently and resorted to a trashy thriller and YA books, all easier to read and not in my pile still to read for the other thing! It worked for me as Christie does for you.

    The worrying thing is though, I always get readers block on holiday – I take half a dozen books and read none of them. Last year to counteract this I read (and enjoyed at the time because it was sunny, and I was in a good mood) Richard Madeley’s book. Now I’ve been invited to join his blog tour for the sequel … help!

  7. Lisa
    June 25, 2014

    Oh yes I have had this, and I still do. It usually hits me after I finish a book, particularly when it’s been an intense reading experience. I just wander aimlessly, pulling books off shelves almost at random, trying to find something to connect with. It’s such an awful feeling. I have learned that it’s a really bad idea to go to bookstores at times like these, because that’s when I get overwhelmed at the sheer number of words and books, none of which I want to read. There’s always such a sense of relief when I can settle on a book again.

  8. Anna
    June 25, 2014

    Zounds! Reader’s Block sounds dreadful! Fortunately I have reached the ripe-old reading age of 65 with never a touch of the affliction. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, if only because the lack thereof is one more thing for which to be thankful!

  9. heavenali
    June 25, 2014

    Ugh! I am pretty sure I have never experienced such horrors. I sympathise. There are times when I find myself too tired to read much such as end of school year (like now) and I am generally reading slower this year, and that drives me potty enough I can’t imagine what a total block would be like.

  10. susanintoronto
    June 25, 2014

    Fret not. Remember, life is too short to finish reading bad/boring/not-my-cup-of-tea/not-right-now/not-ever/maybe-someday books.

    Read what you like.

    Read long and prosper.

  11. gertloveday
    June 25, 2014

    There’s a related condition known as Reader’s Ennui, in the same classification as Balzac’s Syndrome, which resembles the feeling you have when you eat a whole bag of licorice allsorts one after the other even though you don’t want them. Book after book and all is reduced to a pale torpor and disgust with the world. Can only be cured by abstaining from books for a time inversely related to your usual enjoyment of them. In rare cases, though, may kick over into Reader’s Block.

  12. Hilary
    June 26, 2014

    Simon, thank you! I have had this all my adult life, at least once a year, and had never given it a name, except for saying I am ‘all read-out’. Actually, I’ve got a touch of it right now so your PSA is timely!

    I used to think it was because I worked as a librarian, and periodically found myself overwhelmed by working within walls of books and the choice they represented, and by the whole business of handling, selecting, deselecting and recommending them. But those particular aspects of the job didn’t last all that long, and I ended up working in offices for years, yet this cycle stayed with me. I think it might be because I’ve not got the self-restraint to pace my reading, so I overdose and then get what I know know as (thank you) Reader’s Block. Avid thanks for the recommended remedy – I’ll try it! I think you’re right – the way out of it is short, pacy, involving reads that remind me that I AM a reader.

  13. Angela Young
    June 26, 2014

    This is so very interesting and something I’d never thought about before reading about your blocks at Stuck in a Book, Simon. And it makes me wonder whether ‘The vast majority of the public who seldom, if ever, pick up a book,’ suffer from Reader’s Block too, without knowing it? (Maybe not.)

    But now I understand what it is: when you say ‘I am a Reader’ and ‘A large part of how I define myself is that I read,’ I completely understood what I haven’t understood before. I am a writer and a very large part of the way I define myself is that I write. If I couldn’t write I’d panic (the very thought makes me panic). Thank you for your clarity.

  14. craftysorcha
    June 26, 2014

    I pick a series of books that’s reasonable easy to read (so the Discworld books, Agatha Christie, Inspector Wexford) and read one of those in between other books. Works a charm!

  15. Rebecca
    June 26, 2014

    I suffer from book grazing: I pick up a book, flick a few pages, read a bit…and then realise, ‘I don;t want to read this just now…’ Next book, same scenario, and again, and again. It’s as if I know there are so many books out there, and I want to read them all AT ONCE, but haven’t found the right one yet. Remedy is to take things slowly. Get to the end of a paragraph, or a page. Or better yet, finish something short and sweet!

  16. pam
    June 27, 2014

    Maybe you need glasses – before I got my first pair I thought my brain was going – couldnt take in the meaning and couldnt read for long. Glasses were like a miracle – it is interesting that I thought I could see well and that I didn’t realise my brain was struggling to read. But in your case its intermittent so perhaps not.

  17. Diana Birchall
    June 30, 2014

    Only just saw this, having been away. It’s something of a relief to see that you, too, are human, and not a Reading Machine! Perhaps you experience a bit of blockage because so much of your reading is allied to performative tasks – you can’t just uncomplicatedly read, you’ve had to write theses and blogs about every thought you’ve gleaned from your reading, and like any work, even beloved work, that can get tiresomely demanding from time to time.

    My reading habits changed a few years ago and it’s somewhat related. A former compulsive reader, I just stopped doing it as much. Reading manuscripts for work means that I don’t want to read modern fiction for pleasure, and also I’ve been spending more time on the computer (Facebook, blogs…all enjoyable!) and less reading Real Books. This has bothered me a bit, especially as I’m still a compulsive book buyer, but…things change. In your case though I just think it’s you telling yourself that you need to slow down and smell the fritillaries a bit. I’ve said before I’ve never known how you manage to do all you do!

  18. Margaret Willingham
    July 3, 2014

    Yes, I have had it.
    I do empathise.
    I will stand with you.
    And I will help raise awareness by linking to this post where possible.

    Library books can trigger an episode for me. I have a pile of books I checked out from the library sitting next to a TBR pile of books I own. I’ve maxed out my renewals. I *should* read one of the library books because they have due dates and I really do want to read them all. But…then I look at the books I own and think: I *really* want to read that one (Simon recommended it). But, oh dear, those pesky due dates! After a great deal of waffling I move to the read-several-pages-from-each-book phase and if there are *any* other major distractions in my life (like listening to the police scanner on my iPhone), quite quickly to total Reader’s Block.

  19. Pingback: Mark Only by T.F. Powys | Stuck in a Book

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This entry was posted on June 25, 2014 by in Articles, Entries by Simon.



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