Why I Am Reading Less During The Lockdown
April 28, 2020
Perhaps it will be 20 years before I’ll be able to look back at the COVID-19 lockdown and quote Charles Dickens, ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times’. But right now, in this very moment? I have no idea.
Each morning, I get overwhelmed by numerous articles and posts telling me what I should do to make maximum use of this lockdown. Spend an hour listening to a writer talk about how to overcome writer’s block! Tune in for this book reading! Listen to a storytelling session for adults! Everyone’s going live and everyone’s making video recordings. I must confess I’ve done a couple myself.
People are also making dozens of lists of books to read in times of Corona. I’m guilty of that too. Let’s be honest, though. I’ve listed 60 must-read books so far, but have read only three out of them during this period. And my lists are just drops in the flood of suggestions that are inundating us.
In the middle of this social media-driven list of things I ‘ought’ to do, I find that I’m doing less of what I consider leisure and relaxation than ever before. For me, the prime loss is in the amount I read. Being stuck at home, with the privilege of not just a roof over my head but also privacy, I should surely be able to read more, right? Apparently not.
The Need To Be Productive
To me, it seems that social media users forget that a lockdown is not a holiday. As someone who regularly conducts reading and writing workshops for children and adults, I keep realising that a two-hour online workshop is far more intensive than an offline one. Workshops usually involve a lot of movement, which is curtailed by the presence of a camera and earphones. Plus, with no group work and fewer distractions, a lot more gets packed into an online session than an offline one. As a result, working from home often involves nearly double the regular number of hours of preparation.
Additionally, I try to push myself to be super-productive to make up for all the workshops that are cancelled instead of being moved to the virtual world. To stop thinking about when the next assignment will come my way, I work harder than ever so that I don’t ‘waste’ time.
I’ve also had three books release this year, and am itching to do reading events and launches – which I can’t. And so, I try to do other useful things instead. Unfortunately, the tag ‘useful’ precludes leisure reading.
When I do take a tiny break from work, I take a peek at social media. Before I know it, I’m sucked into the online world.
On the one hand, there’s news. Though it is important to set boundaries for ourselves on how much exposure we have to news and the media, it is also too easy to feel guilty about not being aware and/or informed. Of course, some would argue that reading the news is a kind of reading too, but that’s not what this essay is about. Reading has always been my way of unwinding. I relax with a book. And that’s the kind of reading I mean when I say that I’m reading less and not more with the lockdown.
On the other hand, my tiny breaks on social media throw up all kinds of other things, like pictures of people doing incredible new things – picking up new hobbies, knitting, painting, cooking, etc. If this isn’t a sure shot way of creating guilt, I don’t know what is. Social media constantly manages to remind me that other people are somehow pushing far more productivity into their 24 hours than I feel is even possible.
This digital rabbit-hole of guilt cuts into my own time for leisure reading. And, before I realise it, my break is over and it’s time for me to get back to work.
The Problem Of ‘Might As Well’
Finally, I convince myself that a proper break means that I must get away from my screen. I am all set to pick up a book to read when I realise that the shelves need dusting and the dishes need to be dried and put away.
Housework should not be such a chore; I don’t even do it alone. The culprit here is ‘might as well’. I might as well sort out the cupboard that I haven’t in years. I might as well clean that dirty corner that’s been accumulating dust since last Diwali. I might as well clear out all the stuff I don’t need.
What starts off as a break ends up becoming more work, just of a different kind. Regular cleaning becomes deep cleaning and suddenly, over an hour has gone by and I haven’t yet picked up the book that I wanted to read.
I think, perhaps I’ll have the time to sit down with my book post sunset, once the day’s work is done. And yet, my book remains untouched because of all the people who are reaching out due to social distancing. All those friends from around the world who’ve been trying to fix a time to video-chat somehow realise that we could catch up now. Everyone is ‘supposed’ to have time, so no more excuses. We talk, catch up – and don’t get me wrong, I love it. It just means that more reading time slips through the cracks.
Dependence On Libraries
Another huge reason why I haven’t been reading is because much of my reading depends on libraries. With the lockdown, libraries are closed and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Borrowed books that I’ve finished reading are collecting dust, but I have no way of returning them or borrowing others. I do use Kindle Unlimited, but my favourite kind of reading is children’s literature.
While I find hundreds of recommendations for romance, science and technology, biographies and self-help on Kindle Unlimited, there’s very little children’s literature there that pulls me in. There are exceptions, of course, but to me, it often feels as though I’ve read all the exceptions.
Without libraries, I feel lost. I don’t know what to read next and find myself continually going back to old favourites, instead of being enthusiastic about new reading discoveries that are waiting for me just around the corner.
I do realise that I can buy books to read on my Kindle, but I find myself spending hours agonising over what to buy simply because I usually buy books that I can easily lend to children I meet during workshops. Since I can’t lend e-books, I buy very few. As a result, fresh reading material feels like a scarce commodity.
I do realise that this seems to indicate that I’m not reading at all. Thankfully, that’s not true. What the lockdown does mean, however, is that I am too exhausted to try something new. And so, I return to my old favourites and reread them.
I just reread The Witches and kept waiting for my favourite lines as I turned the pages. That’s how well I remember the book. I went back to Georgette Heyer and reread the books I remember less, Arabella and April Lady, and I realised I remember them less because I like them less. I read a Julia Golding book and a few others – skimming over much, reading very little. With all the effort that goes into pushing myself to be more productive, I’ve decided not to push myself to read more. My comfort reading takes me back to my old favourites, and there’s no harm in that, is there? I read less because I have less time, but the pleasure I get from it is undiminished. The only niggling problem is that I have neither the time nor the energy for the kind of reading that grips me and makes me long for more. I’m waiting for that. I’m waiting to have enough energy to give something new a shot.
Maybe that will happen after the lockdown ends. For the moment, there’s work to be done and a dusty table under this laptop of mine. And a pile of dusty books on an ever-dusty shelf.
Varsha Seshan is a writer of lists, emails, detailed notes to self and children’s books. She has written 15 books for children and has twice been shortlisted for the Scholastic Asian Book Award. When she is not writing, she is usually travelling, working with children or dancing. She conducts reading and writing workshops for children and adults at schools and libraries. She also facilitates a writers’ club for pre-teens at a school in Pune (India), where she lives. A classical dancer with over 25 years of training in Bharatanatyam, she has performed extensively in India and abroad. Find out more at www.varshaseshan.com
Read her articles here.
Enjoyable essay! I appreciate your insights into the different types of distractions that’ve amde lockdown, for some of us, seemingly less productive than our regular working lives.
As for social media — aren’t we always pretending we’re happier, more productive, more popular than we really are? I think lockown has just provided one more context showcasing that existing problem in our relationship with social media.
And I agree: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with revisiting favourites! I’ve read *Little Women* and *David Copperfield* etc several times.
I’ve not read much children’s literature, but I thoroughly enjoy the Princess & The Goblin / Princess & Curdie series. Also the Just William books. Have you read those?
Hi, Amita, thank you for reading the essay and for your comment!
Yes, I do agree with you about the version of ourselves that we project on social media, and that lockdown has exposed our problematic relationship with it just a little more!
I haven’t read The Princess and the Goblin series, but I read Just William as a child. I enjoyed some of the books, but couldn’t connect with much of the content, somehow, unlike the rest of my family, who are William fans!