When Reading is Hard Work

One of the things I have found most difficult about adulthood is the need to motivate myself to do things I will enjoy. When I was a child, I would do them without thinking. I wouldn’t need to ‘make time to read’, I would just read whenever I had a moment. I wouldn’t have to give myself rules about playing through one game before I’d bought another, I would just play them all however I wanted.

Then, somewhere along the way, this changed. I stopped reading as much after university. Really, I stopped doing much of anything except play the same two games over and over. Depression made it difficult to motivate myself to do anything, and though I got much better, the one thing that never seemed to come back was that ability to just do.

It took me a while to realise that this wasn’t a symptom of my depression, but something that a lot of people experienced. Because the thing is, reading (and playing games and other hobbies, but today I want to focus on reading) can be really hard work. It’s not as simple as just opening your book or e-reader and getting going.

As adults we generally have less time spare, so the degree to which we value that time is higher. Which means, with reading, we care much more about what we’re reading.

Thus, the first hurdle: picking a book in the first place. Sometimes easy if you’re really into a series or author and there’s a new one; sometimes hard if you’ve run out of everything and have no ideas. Either way you want to do it right: starting a book and finding it’s awful is supremely annoying, not to mention that you then have the question of whether you stop midway or not.

Because that’s the second thing that’s hard. When I was younger, if I was reading a book and I didn’t really care for it – very, very rare – I just kept going and finished it. As an adult, I don’t do this. I force myself to stop reading, but that requires me to value my time over my sense of achievement. I genuinely feel awful about stopping a book early and I don’t think I’m alone in this.

This is, of course, all assuming that you can even find the time to read. For many people, there’s an excellent provider of time: commuting. In fact I would say the people I know who read the most are the ones who commute, either by public transport or by car (because audiobooks are much more prevalent now).

Others read at bedtime, which is my preferred method: when I was young I would stay up late to finish books as an alternative to dealing with the insomnia I didn’t understand. This is a habit I have retained. I don’t read every single night, but I am trying to read more nights than I don’t. Contrary to what you might imagine, it actually makes me sleep better – probably because of the habit.

But for many, stealing these opportunities isn’t possible. I know people who, in order to finish a book, have to schedule time for it. People who only ever read on holidays, and not because they don’t like reading – just because they don’t have time. For these people, a lot of work has had to go into this before they’ve even opened the book.

Setting targets can help, but of course this feels like its own kind of work. Just remember that you can set your targets low. Is one book a year going to be tough for you? Make that your bar. Confident you can read a lot? Go for two books a month. Find something that is a challenge but not going to be stressful. Even with reading, you get out what you put in.

Then, of course, we come to reading the book itself.

This should be the fun part, right? You got through the slog of choosing and finding time. You’ve managed to steal a moment where you can sit down and read. There’s a drink next to you, you’re in a comfy chair, and you get to start.

…whereupon you find that, for some reason, this book is difficult to read.

I will basically read anything, but my primary genre (unsurprisingly) is fantasy. Multiple times in the last few years, my friends and colleagues have expressed a mixture of disgust and astonishment that I had never read the Wheel of Time series. They urged me to do so, but with a warning: the first few books are hard.

I was cheerful in the face of this. After all, one of my favourite parts of the Lord of the Rings is the section with Tom Bombadil. I am above your petty difficulties, I thought! I take the boring and find it fascinating! So I gleefully picked up the first book (once I had overcome all the previous hurdles, obviously) and started to read.

And it was hard.

“I just want to punch Rand,” I said to my fiancĂ© a few days later, storming into the room. “I want to punch him in his stupid little teenage boy face and then punch all of the others as well because they are ALL IDIOTS.”

To get through the first few books, I had to work really hard. My friends kept urging me to continue, telling me that it got better and the fact that the characters started out so infuriating made it worth it when they started to mature. And, yes, in time they did start to change. Then other points of view came in to give me respite from a boy who seemed permanently stuck in capslock!Harry mode – a very valid reaction to their experiences, but not that much fun to read.

Even still, it was a slog, and I couldn’t work out why. I had now gotten to a point where I at least tolerated the boys and liked most of the other characters. I found the story engaging and was delighted by how much I could see of other fantasy novels in it, demonstrating why this was a series I just had to read. I liked the world and the things in it. And it took me weeks and weeks to finish each book.

I’m now onto book four, and 36% of the way through. I have managed 3% in two months. I had to make myself stop over the holidays to read other things, because I was getting so fed up with how hard work it was. This was an interesting test of whether it was just me as a reader that was the problem – I slid through the pages of the other books like a breeze.

Sure, it’s a long book – but I read a lot of long books. During said pause, I read Oathbringer in just a few days. I read the Name of the Wind in two. Because I just couldn’t put either of them down. There is obviously a difference, no matter how much I’m enjoying parts of the Wheel of Time, but it’s a difference that clashes hard with all the things that make writing hard.

So the question is, when this happens, what do you do?

For starters, I would definitely recommend taking a break to read other things. This made a huge difference to how I was feeling. I was reminded that I do love reading, it’s not always hard work, and that I’m not a ‘bad reader’ because I’m finding a book hard.

My intention going forward is to read the series concurrent to other things that I’m reading. Because that means one of two things will happen. Either I’ll slowly, slowly finish the books over a number of years – or at some point I’ll hit a spot where it’s no longer hard work and will surge forward and finish it.

I’ve also tried to squeeze in more moments where I read. I’ve taken more baths than showers to get another chapter in here and there. I’m trying to read as many nights as I can. They’re not big bulks of time, but they’re definitely making a difference – much of that 3% of progress I mentioned has been in the past fortnight.

And if all that fails?

Well, then it’s time to suggest something blasphemous. Something that 13-year-old me would have felt nauseated by. Something that you would instinctively think makes you a ‘bad reader’:

Stop reading that book.

I don’t mean temporarily. I mean actually, completely stop reading that book. Put it away. Read other things not as an interim, but because you’re done with
the book that is hard. Sure, maybe come back to it one day when your vision has gone rose tinted and you think oh, it can’t have been that bad. Then you can go around this whole merry cycle again.

But for now, stop reading it. Because sometimes, what you don’t want when you read a book is a mental workout. Sometimes you just want to be immersed in a story that you cannot put down. And that’s okay. It is! It is okay to not like a book, to find them hard, to want to stop. That doesn’t make you a bad reader.

In fact, I don’t think there’s any such thing.

What are you reading this year that’s hard? What are your personal targets? Let me know in the comments, or follow me on Twitter and Facebook!

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