From our first appointment together back in 2018, my friend and tattoo artist, Virginia, and I have been bonded over our love for books. We'd gushed over writers like Lauren Groff, Helen Oyeyemi, and Tommy Orange, while she scrupulously worked away on the daffodil that I now have above my left elbow. I recommended The Pisces by Melissa Broder before I left; I left with a recommendation to read Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi.
This has been the dynamic of our friendship for almost four years now: I come in for a tattoo every few months, and we catch up on the numerous books read between us since the last time we saw each other. But, like the world, things changed in 2020, including many of the habits that were once constants in our lives, now variables—like reading.
One would think that being relegated to our respective homes—unless you’re an essential worker or anyone else on the frontlines of the global pandemic—would result in an abundance of free time, allowing us to finally tackle the things that we’ve been saying we've wished we had more time for. Except experiencing both collective and, for millions of folks around the world, individual trauma is not really conducive to tackling the giant stack of books in your home that are waiting to be read. And I’m not just talking about the pandemic, because even in the middle of soaring cases, thousands upon thousands of us around the world galvanized—from hitting the streets to organizing fundraisers and sharing resources—to protest the state-sanctioned murdering of Black people, even when the media cycle inevitably moved on. And don’t get me started on the 2020 election—my nerves still haven’t recovered.
Everyone copes differently: I ended up reading even more because, even before the pandemic, my relationship with reality was tenuous at best, so I needed even more to escape from the hellscape whose flames were only fanned by a dangerously incompetent administration whose neglect resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. But, for many voracious readers, including Virginia, it was the opposite: they found themselves in a dreaded reading slump.
The solace offered by books was still there—it will never leave us, as long as we have the printed word—but, for many, the connection was severed by an inability to concentrate, fatigue and frustration playing an internal game of ping-pong, all on top of just trying not to fucking lose it. If anything, it’s been one banger after another, but reading went from effortless to challenging for so many, a classic case of “it’s not you, it’s me.”
I counted my blessings along with each book I finished, thankful that, despite everything going on, both in the world and my personal life, I still had the ability to lose myself in a good book. One by one, I watched book-loving friends, both real-life and of the internet variety, announce their reading slumps; it seemed to be spreading just as fast as you know what. I continued devouring books—both for work and for pleasure—until, like the recent wave of omicron, it got me, too.
In November, I couldn’t pick up a book for longer than twenty minutes. Even that became a coveted amount of time. As my slump worsened, my ability to digest sentences became as cumbersome as my ability to digest dairy. I recently finished reading a memoir that I loved and wanted to write about in this newsletter, and once I sent said newsletter out, I sat down to start a story collection sent to me by an editor who thought I would enjoy it; and he was right! I have loved what I've read so far! But I haven't been able to read more than one story at a time, which, in this case, is no longer than a few pages each.
To say I was bummed is an understatement. I missed being able to read, but I could not devote the attention I used to have to any one book. I tried picking up another book from my to-be-read pile—the new Sally Rooney—but I gave up after a few sentences, frustrated that I couldn’t finish the other book. I wanted to get to the new Rooney, but I wanted to finish this story collection that I was enjoying, yet I could not curl up for longer than a few minutes before submitting to the urge to just lie on the floor with my heating pad in the dark.
As December came and the holidays approached, I felt optimistic again. I was wrapping up my work for the year and would be spending the holidays with my family down in New Jersey: it was shaping up to be the perfect time to catch up on reading. Every year, I pack four or five books and blaze through them while rotting away on my parents’ couch in between family functions, and I was hoping this year would be the same.
A PIPE DREAM.
I was only able to read a few chapters of the same book I had tried to start in November. The other books I overzealously packed remained untouched. I gave up sometime between Christmas and New Year's, choosing instead to spend my remaining time at home getting stoned and watching old episodes of Shark Tank while taking advantage of my last refill of prescription-strength Prilosec.
I was giving up hope on getting to the books I wanted to get to before the new year. 2022 was around the corner, which meant that I had already started being pitched and assigned 2022 titles; I was already getting sent upcoming releases in the mail, so I had to get to reading ASAP. The 2021 books I was hoping to get to would now occupy a middle tier of my TBR pile, awaiting the day I would return with the promise of being fateful to them, and not running off to watch old episodes of Charmed.
Once I got back to Brooklyn on New Year’s Day, I sat down and looked at the various stacks of books monopolizing my room. I zeroed in on my pile of 2022 galleys, which I hadn't even touched, despite having an interview with an author due in a few weeks. I was desperate to get out of this rut, so instead of making my way through books in the order in which they were placed on a pile, I picked up something that I was hoping would inspire me, which just so happened to be a queer memoir by the same author I was scheduled to interview.
It did the trick.
I inhaled High-Risk Homosexual by Edgar Gomez in two days. Then I picked up I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg, which I read over the course of one weekend. Memoir is my favorite genre to read, and not only did these two not disappoint, they made me want to open up a blank Word doc and write.
By consuming what I wanted to create, my literary appetite was renewed, which, in turn, made me want to pick up books from other genres, my curiosity about and appreciation for what they had to offer reinvigorated. The way a character moves through their world in a novel is something I’m able to latch onto again. I’m able to chew on sentences again like they’re tobacco, relishing every syllable between my teeth, blown away by an author’s ability to write words like a composer arranges notes on a scale. Above all, I sought joy. When I found it—even if it was just a morsel—I held onto it. And before I knew it, those morsels multiplied. These are all things that are just as vital to my craft as the writing itself.
Pandemic or not, I’m sure I’ll find myself in a slump again. And it might not even be a reading slump; it could be a writing slump. It could be any of the other 1,000 ruts I’ve weathered in the past. I think the key—with any kind of rut—is to be patient and not force anything. Like a stomach bug, these things just have to make their way through your system, but (eventually) they too pass. In the meantime, be gentle with yourself. Will I take my own advice? LMAO, NO, HO. But I hope you will, at least.
Remember: if all else fails, screaming is fine.