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.
You 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?!