It is somewhat debated whether writer’s block—an author’s inability to find the desire, inspiration or ability to write—is a real affliction or an imagined one. I’m not much of a writer, so I dare not weigh in too enthusiastically on that score. What I am is a reader. I’ve always been so, and I will likely always consider myself to something of a bookworm. Only I’ve noticed over the past few months that I’ve been suffering from what I shall tentatively refer to as reader’s block: the inability to finish—or even start—reading a new book.
I should qualify here that when I speak of reading, I’m referring to reading for pleasure. I’ve read plenty of books cover to cover over the past few months, some repeatedly (oh, the joys of sales conference prep). Several of them I even really enjoyed, and will likely go back to again when I find the time and inclination. But when the task is undertaken out of duty rather than desire, the prospect of starting a new book, while sometimes daunting, is not quite so weighted with the expectation of enjoyment or fulfillment.
My affliction first came to my attention several months ago when, browsing the local bookstore, I wandered toward a display of new and notable releases. I scanned the titles with a somewhat distracted indifference, finding a number of vaguely familiar books that I’ve heard about in some form or other—you can’t work in publishing without being so thoroughly steeped in book buzz as to spot a potential Giller pick at ten paces. Despite the draw of a few flashy covers, however, I found little to my liking.
I thought of picking up several tomes of course, but mostly with the same mentality that you might approach broccoli or Brussels sprouts—with little enthusiasm beyond the vague feeling that it might be “good for you”. I don’t remember if I bought anything that day (who am I kidding? I probably did.) but I do remember a time when I couldn’t walk through a bookstore without coveting at least half a dozen titles, or, after purchasing one, not devouring it in the space of a day or two.
Lately I’ve accumulated a whole stack of new books to read, balanced rather precariously next to my bed, ready at a moment’s notice to topple over and smother me in my sleep when my neglect of their pages becomes too much for their little spines to bear. The titles run the gamut poetry to short stories, from literary fiction to fantasy, from satire to techno-thrillers to, yes, that one trashy romance novel thrown in for colour. (Don’t judge me.) I started no less than five or six of books only to put them down for some reason or other, bookmarks jutting accusingly from the pages like bony, bookish fingers. And then, weeks passed without reading a single page for pleasure.
Something had to be done.
I scoured my bookshelf, a feat of rather impressive proportions considering the book-to-shelf space ratio. I couldn’t go back to one of those yet-to-be-finished books that I’d already put down—too much pressure—nor could I go back to an old favourite—too little effort—so I found the smallest, least intimidating book and plucked it from the dark recesses of my collection.
Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader is a diminutive 120 page novella with a cheery yellow cover and the rather a propos premise of a queen suddenly struck voracious appetite for literature. Its provenance is rather embarrassing; it was a recommended read during grad school several years ago (*sigh*) and now it would finally have its day in the sun—or rather the reading lamp.
I curled up comfortably with my choice, my body retaining enough muscle memory to slip naturally into its reading pose, and began to read. It was hard going at first. My mind wandered every few pages—did I finish this? Have I forgotten that? And what about…. But I persevered, and I forced myself through a good sixty pages before I called it a night. The next night, I picked it up again, with the intention of finishing every last word.
What I discovered, beyond the pleasures of the book itself, was that my reading skills were not forgotten, only a little rusty. I am learning to cope with my reader’s block, with lists and schedules and a promise to myself that I’ll keep exercising my literary muscles before they atrophy. I am still capable of deriving great enjoyment from my recreational literary pursuits, and though I cannot now devote the amount of time to pleasure reading that was once my wont, I’m finding that a half-hour or so before bed is not an unreasonable goal.
The forty-eight-odd books awaiting me on my to-read list … well, that’s another story.