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Struggling to read during these uncertain times? Here’s a way to get back to books

The call to self-isolate was heeded with enthusiasm by many book lovers. If you ignore the terrible health, economic and social consequences of coronavirus, it would have been our time. After all, what bibliophile would not embrace the opportunity to stay home for months, with little else to do but read? With social commitments gone and workplaces shut down, and we’re even being encouraged to minimise the need to leave the house to exercise, all of the signs pointed to diminishing tbr piles, the rediscovery of old favourites and an excuse to order online to support our local booksellers.

However, my Twitter feed has been filling up with readers who are having a lot of trouble … reading.

Bookseller @han_bookshelf yesterday asked: “Anyone else barely read anything since being at home??” Judging by the likes the post attracted, the answer is ‘yes’.

Similarly, sociology professor @_amroali posted: “Who else is struggling to read a book? Forced isolation under a pandemic, socio-economic collapse, and global apocalyptic teasers do not make quality time for reading. This isn’t quality time it’s anxiety time when you can no longer ignore the outside world even for a moment.”

The post in itself is enough to bring on a headache, and send me straight back to the news sites that I have been trawling in the past two weeks, trying to find more and more information about coronavirus. And there is plenty available, with global and local news updates by the minute, several government press conferences during the day and constant debates from high profile medical professionals about political leaders’ approach to the crisis.

I have to admit that I’ve swung wildly between trying to read to escape the overload of anxiety, and scrolling through the news for hours, unable to tear my eyes from the increasingly dire news reports about the impacts of coronavirus in Australia and overseas.

But, if I have learnt one thing in recent weeks, it has been that I don’t need to know EXACTLY what is happening, EXACTLY when it is happening. I know that I need to stay at home (and far too much information about details like whether it is ok to order takeaway), but I probably don’t need to keep up-to-date on the escalating number of Italians/Spanish or English who have died, or how many people on each continent have been stricken by the virus. I just don’t. All that information does is makes me more anxious. Same goes for the fiery debates, sternly delievered press conferences and alarming graphs.

It is far more satisfying, distracting and calming to pick up a book. Reading doesn’t just offer an escape from reality, but has also been found to alleviate anxiety – something that we could all do with right now. According to the World Literacy Foundation, reading has been found to decrease blood pressure, lower heart rate and reduce stress, with even six minutes a day improving health.

Some other advice that might help is that, if you want to get your reading mojo back, don’t choose this moment to tackle Crime and Punishment or Anna Karenina. Select an easy read that will distract you for the moment. Do you like detective novels? Margaret Atwood recommended George Simeon’s Detective Maigret mysteries and Agatha Christie novels. I also find Alexander McCall Smith’s books particularly relaxing, with their beautiful settings, whether in Scotland or Botswana, endearing characters and quaint and easily surmountable problems.

Or, another way to get your enthusiasm for reading back is to read with your kids, if you are a parent. Start the Faraway Tree books by Enid Blyton, and remember a childhood in which such an enchanted wood seemed possible. Or laugh to Andy Griffiths’ and Terry Denton’s Treehouse series. There’s nothing like a magical tree to help children (and adults) escape.

I’ve been reading Harry Potter and it is comforting both to escape to a different world, and to know that there are more books and movies that I can move onto when I’m done. It will be a long time until I really need leave Hogwarts.

Not everyone has the opportunity to sit on the couch all day and spend self-isolation reading, with the demands of children, working from home (if you’re fortunate enough not to have to work outside the home), struggling with finances and maintaining a functioning household during a time of great strain.

But, if you get a moment or some free hours, don’t pick up your phone and scroll through news and social media sites. Don’t wait up to watch the final news report of the day. You won’t find what you’re after – a solution to this health and economic crisis we are facing. You’ll just find many new sources of anxiety. If you can, pick up a book and escape, at least for a while. And stay home.


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