Books are definitely having a bit of a moment.
Sure, we lamented the demise of the printed word a few years ago, but now, print sales are at a 10-year high, with over 212 million print books sold in 2021, according to Nielsen BookScan.
Books might have the pandemic to thank for that. With extra time on our hands and long periods of isolation, the past two years have changed how we read.
We tore through classics we had given up on long ago (thousands from around the globe read Tolstoy’s 1,440-page War & Peace as part of Yiyun Lee’s Tolstoy Together virtual book club). We also turned to TikTok.
The social platform’s avid community of readers, known as #BookTok, which has 39b views and counting, has been in credited in part with the revival in print book sales. Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles were both written years ago, but found sales figures spiking in 2021 after getting shared on the app, as readers fell for the gripping storylines and well-developed characters.
‘BookTok is having a huge impact on what’s published but also what people are coming in to buy,’ Chrissy Ryan, owner of BookBar, an independent bookshop and social space in north London, tells Metro.co.uk. ‘The trends on BookTok seem to be about really good storytelling. Often, if you’re struggling to get into fiction, that’s where to start.’
Reading isn’t just a pleasure, it’s a cure of sorts, one that can improve brain connectivity. Books give us better vocabularies; they ignite new interests. Words on the page can act as therapy: a 2009 study from the University of Sussex found that six minutes of reading was enough to reduce stress levels by 68%. Reading fiction can also potentially make us better people since it increases our empathy and improves social skills.
But even knowing this, and even having the desire to read, many of us just can’t find the time or mental energy to dive into a great book.
What’s holding us back? And how can we get back into the habit?
Not everyone would call themselves a ‘reader’ – in fact, as hypnotherapist Jessica Boston has discovered with several of her clients, it can be a bit of a loaded word.
‘A lot of people come to me with a lot of preconceived ideas about school and about their ability to read,’ she explains. ‘They hold the literal association of books and school. Because they haven’t read for a long time, they’re not good at reading anymore.’
Challenging fixed ideas that clients have about themselves is at the root of Jessica’s work. Reframing ourselves as readers in adulthood even if we didn’t care for books in school is only part of the problem.
Our phone addiction and general sense of overwhelm are additional obstacles.
‘Even when the internet came out, people could watch a 10-minute video of a monkey,’ Jessica says. ‘Now it’s like, “oh, how long is this going to be? Is it more than seven seconds? Because I don’t have it”. With the pandemic. I see people’s bandwidth has closed.’
Dr Hoi F. Cheu, professor at Laurentian University in the English department, thinks there’s another issue at play here, too. Language works by association, so to get the full experience from a certain type of literary text – a Pablo Neruda poem, for example – we need to really concentrate on creating the right mental imagery so the words can resonate on an emotional level.
‘In my view, we struggle to read because reading is hard work, especially reading the kind of writings that challenge us to deepen our thoughts or to access the hidden power of our feelings,’ he tells us.
The first thing to do is stop thinking of reading as another task. Here are some tips on how to bring reading back into your life and start enjoying books again.
Don’t turn reading into another responsibility
As soon as ‘finish that book’ gets added to the never-ending to-do list, it becomes another way to set yourself up to fail, which is why Jessica tells clients not to worry about abandoning books partway, or only reading small chunks of text or pages at a time.
She recommends telling yourself the following: ‘I’ll read whatever book and I don’t care what people think of the book that I’m reading. I’m going to put down the idea that even if I don’t finish the book, that it was a failure. I got what I needed to get out of it.’
Read what you like – not what people think you should be reading
With thousands of new books launched daily, it can be overwhelming to know where to start with reading, especially if you’re out of practice. Current ‘must-reads’ and friends’ recommendations can help – up to a point.
‘Don’t read the book that your friend says is the best book. Read the book that lights you on fire,’ says Jessica.
BookBar’s Chrissy agrees: ‘Don’t try to read in a worthy way. Follow your instinct as to what you want to read. Read for you first.’
Chrissy suggests a ‘reading commute’ to carve out time each day for a book, even if you’re still WFH. This might mean half an hour of reading in the morning before starting work, reading during lunch, or turning off devices half an hour before bed, and reading instead.
Find a reading scheme you’re into
Turning reading into something fun and sociable to look forward to is one reason book clubs are so popular. The pandemic made them bigger and better: now book clubs are increasingly found online, bringing together thousands of readers from across the globe as well as providing exclusive access to authors.
Pandora Sykes’ newly launched Pandora’s Books, from £20 a month, kicked off in February 2022 with Daphne Palasi Andreades’ Brown Girls. BookBar has its own book club (from £15 a month), where readers can listen to Torrey Peters talk Detransition, Baby and watch Raven Leilani dissect Luster.
Try a #readingchallenge
Reading challenges are another way to wake up the dormant bookworm inside. Some ask you to read a certain number of books a year (if 50+ is too ambitious, try LadiesLitSquad’s 21 book challenge).
Plenty of book challenges focus on theme over quantity. There are book voyage reading challenges, which ask you to read books set in countries around the globe, while Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge gives prompts like ‘read a nonfiction YA comic’ and ‘read a political thriller by a marginalised author’.
Book trackers like Goodreads are another way to gamify the reading experience by turning it into a milestone to celebrate, as well as adding a social component to reading. For an alternative, try Book Sloth or Bookly, which will break down each book you read into numbers (pages read, reading speed, total reading time, etc).
We quite like Zibby Books’ #22in22 challenge, which simply asks you to visit bookstores in person. Browsing in a bookshop and selecting a book off the shelf, as opposed to the impersonal experience of ordering online, might just be another way to fuel your interest in reading.
As BookBar’s Ryan observes, reading challenges aren’t designed or everyone.
‘It might be that you just need to take the pressure off and go, “what if I read one book this month, or one book this season?” Just by taking the pressure off, you might find that you do read more,’ she tells us.
Try audiobooks and short stories
For those worried about not having enough time to read, a book of short stories can ease you back into the skill it. So can audiobooks, which you can ‘read’ while multitasking (according to the Publisher’s Association, audiobook sales were up 71% in the first six months of 2021 compared to 2019).
If you’re not sure where to start, ‘think about what podcast you might listen to and choose a book instead in the same genre,’ advises Ryan.
Book in a bibliotherapy and matchmaking service
If you’ve lost your reading groove, or want to read on a certain subject to help you through a particular life event, like feeling burnout, book therapy is another option (some bibliotherapy using self-help books can even be accessed on the NHS).
Booking in a private session to chat through your literary needs and interests can also be fun and motivate you to read again. Try Bijal Shah at Book Therapy, or let The Book Matchmaker find a book for you in just four words.
If you’re looking for a book and don’t know which one to pick, Ryan has some wonderful advice.
‘Treat it like you treat any form of entertainment, like you treat TV. And if you don’t know how that translates to books, then come talk to a bookseller like me.’
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