Is Reader’s Block a Real Thing?

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Reader’s block. The struggle is real. Or at least it is for me. I can see it in my reading log. I’ll read a book that I fall in love with so completely — something like Jesse Q. Sutanto’s Dial A for Aunties — and the experience will give me a sort of high. But then it will end and I’ll be at a loss. I’ll read at least seven books I only feel meh about, DNFing god knows how many others, before finally picking up a book that gives me a fraction of the joy that last awesome title gave me. God, I hate reading slumps.

And these past two years, the reader’s block has been even worse. Pandemic-related stress and anxiety have torpedoed attention spans. Our cognitive load — the amount of information our working memory can hold at any one time — has shrunk. “Previously, you might be willing to put that little bit of effort in because you get that extra reward from reading the book,” neuroscientist and psychologist Oliver J. Robinson told the folks at Refinery29. “But if you don’t care about the reward anymore because you’re anhedonic or you’re miserable or you’ve got other things on your mind, then you’re not going to bother.”

Sound familiar, anyone?

But first, let’s back up a bit.

What Is Reader’s Block?

As you can see above, my experience of reader’s block manifests for multiple reasons, the primary two being 1) the come-down from an amazing book and 2) the sense that my brain has devolved into a puddle of sludge and, as such, cannot appreciate books anymore.

But journalist and author Stuart Jeffries, who is often credited with coining the term “reader’s block” in one of his 2008 articles for The Guardian, describes it as a difficulty readers encounter due to the pressure they feel to read critically-lauded or canonical books, even when they don’t enjoy them. He posits that the tension between the readability of a book and its alleged literary merit are at the root of reader’s block, and that this tension has only been exacerbated by the overwhelming amount of books there are to choose from, in addition to our self-consciousness about our own cultural credentials.

Me? As with most things, I feel reader’s block can be caused by many factors, and experienced in many different ways. In the end, it all comes down to that sense that reading is a struggle, and the enjoyment of it feels out of reach.

But what are some of the common causes, and what can we do about it? First, let’s take a look at what happens in the brain when we read.

What Happens in the Brain When We Read?

Our understanding of the neuroscience behind reading has expanded in the past decade. We now know that reading is a complex skill that involves all the regions of the brain. As we read, we exercise many different cognitive functions, including attention, planning, abstract reasoning, predicting, the use of strategies, problem solving, working memory, long-term storage memory, the retrieval of vocabulary and concepts, grammatical knowledge, visual processing, and more.

As you can see a hint of in that list above, reading doesn’t just happen in the brain. It’s a biopsychosocial process. This means that there’s an interplay between biological, psychological, and social factors. In the paragraph above, we saw how — when we read — our cognition, emotions, memory, and physiology all work together.

But where do those social factors come into play?

The Sociocultural Influences That Contribute to Reader’s Block

There are so many reasons we might have for not connecting to a book, and many of them are sociocultural. Professor Catherine Sheldrick Ross highlighted a number of these in her paper on how folks choose the books they read.

First of all, whether one enjoys reading at all is impacted by whether or not one’s family of origin fostered a love of reading and how one’s schooling succeeded (or didn’t) at teaching literacy.

Once we decide that reading for pleasure is our jam, we then develop various strategies for choosing our next read. We each have our own trusted recommendation sources, genres we turn to again and again, story elements we seek out, authors we feel devoted to, and shifting moods that inform what type of book we’d like to read at any given moment.

But the books we’re aware of — the pool of books from which we’re choosing — can grow or shrink depending upon which titles publishing houses choose to publish and promote, which titles the media uplifts, and which titles bookstores, book clubs, and libraries make accessible to readers.

And our success in choosing the best book for our next read is a muscle that must be flexed. “Each successful book choice makes it more likely that the beginning reader will want to repeat the pleasurable experience by reading something further, and each book read contributes to the bulk of reading experience that increases the reader’s ability to choose another satisfying book,” writes Ross. “Contrarily, each unsuccessful choice decreases the beginning reader’s desire to read, which in turn reduces the opportunity to gain further experience from interaction with books.”

I’d argue that this is true not only for the beginning reader, but for the lifelong reader as well. Personally, the more books I DNF, the more hopeless I feel, and the less patience I have for the next book I try.

Ross breaks it down even further. “Each instance of a reader’s engagement with a particular book takes place within a personal context that includes the following,” she writes. “[T]he reader’s literary competencies derived from previous experiences reading books; the reader’s preferences developed during a lifetime of reading; and events going on in the rest of the reader’s life at any particular time, which in turn relate to the reader’s mood and time available for reading. These personal factors determine what the reader means at any given time by ‘a good book.’”

But Maybe We Need to Be Ruthless

Even though my reader’s block seems to become more firmly entrenched the more books I DNF, linguist and researcher Stephen Krashen theorizes in his book, The Power of Reading, that our ability to give up on a book is crucial to our ability to enjoy reading. He refers to this skill as “free voluntary reading,” and defines it as “putting down a book you don’t like and choosing another one instead.”

And this makes sense, reading slumps be damned. After all, how popular or positively reviewed a book is does not guarantee you’ll enjoy it. And you don’t have to. I think one reason I’ve been so quick to give up on books in recent years is the realization that I will die having not read all of the books I want to read. Why waste time on a book I don’t feel excited to pick up again when there are so many other books to get through?

If you’re interested in the other strategies I use to keep the book train chugging along, check out my post on the 7 Convoluted Rules I Put in Place to Prevent TBR Overwhelm. Because when you’re overwhelmed by choice, something’s gotta give.

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