Since the beginning of the pandemic, a low-key but persistent source of irritation has been how impossible it is to focus. “I can’t do anything,” is a line I’ve exchanged with friends countless times, by which we mean anything more energetic than scrolling. For the past 12 months, at the end of most days, the scene has been exactly the same; I’m out cold on the sofa, dazed from hours of binge-watching, as a prelude to dragging myself to bed. It’s a dull, depressing and nutrient-free way to pass the time. It’s also a hard habit to break.
For many of us, the biggest casualty has been reading. Books – in particular, in my case, fiction – have seemed to require unearthly levels of engagement. For months at a time, no book has appealed, and every title picked up has been put down. Across my apartment, along with the unwashed cups and stray socks, is an archipelago of books started and abandoned. As the pandemic wore on, the New York public library system stopped charging fines for late returns, removing the single incentive I had to finish anything.
It’s odd how disturbing this became. I remember looking at my bookshelves, full of books shipped, years ago and at enormous expensive, across the Atlantic from London. Via the order on the shelves, I could trace the years of my most voracious reading, when one volume led to another, and another, and another. I saw, too, how this energy had dwindled over the years to much more occasional enthusiasms.
There had always been lulls and lags, long periods in which nothing quite took. But it had never been like this. I wondered if it had as much to do with middle age as the pandemic. Perhaps I had entered that period – like the moment a Radio 1 DJ glides, seamlessly, into Radio 2 and then death – when things simply stopped interesting me. Perhaps, I thought with panic, this was it. I’d aged into some fundamentally incurious state, filled up my hard drive, irreversibly burned myself out.
The situation led to some desperate measures. Perhaps the way to jump-start this, I thought, was to be hardcore. All right, I’m not going to write a novel during the pandemic, but maybe I can force myself to actually read one. One night, after the kids were asleep, I resisted another episode of Friday Night Lights and cracked the spine on Swann’s Way, a book that, at a conservative estimate, has moved with me unread across three countries and seven addresses. “For a long time I would go to bed early.” Aaaaand I’m out.
Other failures followed. If Proust was a bit much for my degraded system, how about the Collected Short Stories of John Cheever, a book I’ve been meaning to read since picking it up in a secondhand bookshop in Provincetown, Massachusetts, eight years ago? I ploughed through seven short stories, all beautifully written, some a little dated, and none of which could persuade me to keep reading. I tried a comfort read: Valerie Grove’s excellent biography of Dodie Smith, which I love, but couldn’t settle to. Maybe horror was what I needed, to match the inside with the outside world. But Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle dragged, and Thomas Ligotti, whom I’d half been looking forward to reading, didn’t quite take off, either. The one success I had, last summer, was with Zadie Smith’s Intimations, six essays on the pandemic that briefly lifted me out of my slump. But it was over very quickly and didn’t lead to anything else.
What fixed things, in the end, was shame. Every night, my two six-year-olds have a homework assignment of 25 minutes’ set reading. They are frequently grumpy about it, and I’m frequently cross with them. “How come we have to read and you don’t?” asked one, a few weeks ago, and she had a good point. While they read, I almost always scrolled on my phone in what parents have been taught to refer to as bad modelling. Reluctantly, I sat down with them on the sofa for the 25 minutes, and forced myself to read.
I opened Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which has sat unread on my shelf for 10 years, and either through its brilliance, or the psychology of the timer, it instantly worked. After finishing, I flipped to Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, which was exactly what I needed: the long view taken by an old lady dying in hospital, reminding me that all things will pass. Last week, I started Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel. A long time ago, I had loved books by Taylor, but from the cover this one looked aggressively boring and I was spitefully testing myself. Oh my god, books are amazing. It’s impossibly good.