The following is a guest post by Vicki Ziegler, a book lover, blogger, web designer, social media manager, information architect, and organizer of Silent Book Club events in east end Toronto. The two of us set ourselves the challenge of writing about the same topic: how to keep reading during a pandemic. Below is her response. I’ll share mine with you next time.
Thank you, Liza, for the opportunity to exchange ideas with you, and to share the exchange with our respective blog readers and fellow booklovers. We both reflect on the unusual impediments we’ve all faced while trying to keep up and derive the usual satisfactions from our reading that we used to pre-pandemic. What would normally be a source of comfort, wisdom and escape has suffered during the rollercoaster ride we’re still on . . .
We readers are nothing if not determined though, right? So what we’re exchanging here are not just the problems, but the resourceful ways – often with a little help from our bookish friends – we’ve resuscitated our reading mojo.
In the midst of the heartbreak, fear and frustration of these challenging times, we’ve actually been presented – perhaps perversely – with conditions for reading about which we’ve all dreamed in the pandemic before-times. Prior to 2020, didn’t we often yearn for a calendar emptied of obligations, for a schedule drained of work and overtime and other onerous commitments, for great drifts of unstructured time with which we could curl up (or loll in a hammock or lounge on a porch or dock or beach, or simply not get out of bed) and read read read to our hearts’ content? So, when we’ve been presented with at least some of these conditions, why is it they’ve not been as conducive, comforting and glorious as expected?
That boundless, empty time has come hand in hand with the intense distractions of not ideally reinvented work and working conditions, worry, anger, stress, loneliness, depression and worse. Coupled with excessive screen time, disrupted sleep patterns and more, we are just not reading at the tempo and with the fulfillment we normally experience. We’re missing it acutely, even as it comes and goes with each wave of the situation with which we’re all contending.
Some months that feel like an eternity ago, Glenn Sumi of Toronto’s Now Magazine offered excellent insights into the science behind why it’s been difficult to read a book lately. I was happy to commiserate with Glenn about this reading affliction as he was researching the article.
The fellowship of other readers
Commiserating . . . yes, a key remedy for flagging and distracted reading is the support of other readers. Talking through the reading roadblocks with trusted fellow booklovers, sharing strategies for improving concentration and eking out a few pages read, offering gently discerning recommendations, celebrating each book eventually read – every little bit helps, especially when it’s with the people who know and can best empathize.
Both Liza and I are fortunate to be involved in local Silent Book Clubs, a welcome twist on the traditional book club model that started in 2012 with two friends yearning for quiet, companionable reading time together. Those two friends – Guinevere de la Mare and Laura Gluhanich – went on to found a reading movement of over 240 chapters worldwide.
Although the Silent Book Club premise focused on readers gathering together in person, in comfortable public places, that obviously hasn’t been possible or fully viable for some time in most countries and locations. Some clubs went on hiatus, sadly, but many switched to online versions using various platforms to keep up the vital discussion and socializing components of the in-person meetings. Some clubs even stay online for the silent reading portion of the meeting, which is a very interesting way to keep up that intimate “reading together” vibe, while others go offline and commit to continue on with their silent reading on their own. It isn’t entirely what we wish we were doing, gathered cozily at our favourite coffee shops, restaurants, wine bars and so on, but it’s the next best thing right now . . . and worth battling the Zoom fatigue.
After managing some physically distanced (but wonderful because they were much missed) meetings in a local park last summer, our Toronto-based chapter returned to online meetings as autumn rolled in. Here are my observations from one of our September reports:
“On one hand, how our book club will meet next is perhaps among the least of our worries. On the other hand, how our book club will continue in the weeks and months to come might help us to cope with the worst of our worries. Our beloved books, the themes and ideas and worlds and comforts and diversions they offer us, and the discussion, fellowship and encouragement of other booklovers might be what sustains us. That is what I was reminded of – profoundly – during today’s meeting, which returned to the online formula that has worked well for us in recent months. And that’s it, fundamentally – that’s the message. Our silent book club group, however we’ve managed to assemble, has remained comfortingly constant and is committed to constantly adapting. I sensed and heard real commitment to maintaining that constancy, in whatever form makes sense and feels right.”
Regular practices associated with one’s reading can often help to maintain or restore focus or boost flagging tempo or enthusiasm. Here are a few that I follow, many of them along with other readers who share their discoveries on social media. That said, the crux of such practices is about you and your reading, so if posting feels too competitive or whatever, just use a journal or simply set aside the time at your desk or in your favourite reading chair to do it with yourself.
* Every morning for over 9 years, I’ve started the day by reading a poem. It can come from a print source – a collection, anthology or literary journal or magazine – or it can come from an online source, anything from poets’ web sites to poetry organizations, libraries, journals, literary prizes, song lyric databases and more. After I’ve read the poem a few times, I select a snippet from it and share it on Twitter using the hashtag #todayspoem. It’s rewarding and often revelatory to explore what others share using the same hashtag – there are new contributions every day.
* Sometimes I further deepen my engagement with the words by writing out poems, excerpts and passages. I have a special and lovely notebook just for this purpose. Here is an example of how I do it.
* Every week, I pay attention to everything I read – novels, poetry, but also newspaper and magazine articles, essays and more – for striking and well-crafted sentences. The best one each week becomes my contribution to the #sundaysentence round-up – started by author David Abrams (@ImDavidAbrams on Twitter) – which readers share on Twitter on that day of the week.
* Last August, I decided to take up the daunting but wonderful Sealey Challenge for reading yet more poetry. Started in 2017 by American poet and educator Nicole Sealey, and steered through social media with the hashtag #thesealeychallenge (largely on Twitter and Instagram), the idea is to commit and do your best to read 31 works of poetry over the course of 31 days in August. Before this challenge, I always have had a poetry collection on the go, but reading at this pace and with this concentration turned it into an invigorating and mind-expanding experience – at times overwhelming but always exhilarating. It also revealed poetry and my capacity for it in new and surprising ways.
For almost 25 years, my husband and I have enjoyed our own personal version of audiobooks by reading aloud to each other. We discovered the power of reading aloud on a long car trip when, towards the end of a 1997 cross-Canada vacation, we’d grown tired of radio and the music CDs we’d been listening to for a month and just needed something to keep us going for the last sprint home to Toronto. We even remember the book: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen (1983).
Thanks to that riveting choice made at a perfect time, we’ve managed to have a “read aloud” book on the go pretty much ever since. Our favourite reads are biographies and memoirs (currently, A Promised Land by Barack Obama). We read when we’re on extended drives, when we’re cooking or cleaning up in the kitchen, just sitting on the porch or dock, and more. Whether you are reading or being read to, it’s a potent and rejuvenating way to engage with the words, with the subject and with a fellow reader.
In a 2019 interview with literary critic Meghan Cox Gurdon about why she reads aloud to her teenagers, you’ll find this observation:
“Perhaps the most important reason for carrying on reading, she says, is that it establishes a regular time to switch off from devices and be with our families instead.”
Although it was for a not happy reason, a pandemic memory that will stay with me is that of reading aloud over the phone to my hospitalized mother-in-law last summer. We still haven’t seen her in now over a year, but through books and reading, we’ve stayed connected.
Returning to favourite past reads has been a very useful method of recharging my reading energies. Several Silent Book Club friends have had success with the same approach. Interestingly, it seems to be the comfort of the familiar, although not necessarily comfort reads per se that is clicking. Short story collections, in particular, have worked well, both for that familiarity factor and the shorter reads for a flagging attention span. One of my memorable rereads in 2020 was The Progress of Love by Alice Munro (1986), which snapped me to attention and whoa, was anything but a cozy comfort read!
Revisiting previous reads also provides excellent opportunities to garner new insights and wisdom. Another favourite 2020 read was Swamp Angel by Ethel Wilson (1954). The resilience of central character Maggie reminded me vividly that we can always dig down into our reserves to endure, to persevere and, where necessary, to start over. (Learn more about Swamp Angel here.)
Thank you again, Liza. It’s connections like these, between dedicated readers, that will bolster us and help us through these difficult times with the sources of insight and comfort to which we’ve always turned. We’ll clutch our books and stick with our bookish friends – around the corner and across the ether – as we make our way up, down and to the end of this rollercoaster ride.
Find more about Vicki Ziegler (aka bookgaga) and her reading habits and delights here.