Reading During a Pandemic: Slice of Life #sol21 12/31

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That’s what I thought my pandemic reading year would look like. Not that anyone thought it would be a year back then. Two or three months, I thought, maybe the summer. We all had energy in March. We were listening to the Berlin Philharmonic and taking drawing classes and streaming opera and attending daily PD with Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle and writing in our notebooks with Amy Ludwig VanDerwater and reading War and Peace alongside Yiyun Li. At least I was. That was my March 2020.

My notebook is full of reading plans. But as I’ve shared here many times before, I am strong on the plan, shaky on the execution. And that’s ok. A big part of the pleasure of my reading life is hatching plans.

Still, with so much extra time to read, I anticipated that 2020 would be a fantastic year for books. I thought the stacks would pile up. Maybe I’d even break my previous record for numbers of books finished. Not so much. I’ve struggled to read over the past year and not found as much pleasure and sustenance in books as I usually do.

I made it about an eighth of the way through War and Peace before I abandoned it. I wanted to be the kind of person who read War and Peace at the stately pace of twelve pages a day during a pandemic. But I turned out not to be. I joined several more public readalongs and didn’t finish any.

Although I enjoyed reading from my own stacks, I also missed the motivating pleasure and dopamine hit of constant fresh stacks from the library. I kept forgetting to log finished books on Good Reads and eventually stopped tracking my reading entirely. For the first time in over thirty years, I didn’t keep an accurate list of what I read last year. I bought too many books and often couldn’t remember why I wanted them by the time they arrived. I struggled to figure out what kind of book I needed most during a pandemic and abandoned far more titles than I finished.

Still, the reading year wasn’t all bad.

I had enormous energy for professional development books from March through June and plowed through a couple dozen, taking copious notes and having wonderful ideas.

Poetry was a constant. I read poetry daily, whatever poems happened across my Twitter feed, as well as the poems in the daily poetry emails I signed up for. I also read whole collections consistently and even joined an August challenge to read an entire poetry collection each day (I think I made it about a quarter of the way through that challenge before abandoning it, but that’s still 10 more books of poetry I wouldn’t have read otherwise).

It was a good year for series. I finally finished Jason Reynolds’s Track series. I spent a happy month or two in Tanya Huff’s Confederation series and discovered that I can read and enjoy military sci-fi. Two of my favorite series either concluded (Meghan Whalen Turner’s The Thief series) or had a new title (Martha Wells’s Murderbot series), and while neither book was my favorite, I still enjoying visiting with favorite characters.

Two things have changed permanently about my reading life, I believe.

First, I am reading much more slowly and far less. I stopped blogging weekly about what I’m reading, which meant the weekly drive to finish something, anything, preferably several somethings, by Sunday night no longer drove my reading life. I read now when I can and when I want to. Every night before bed without fail. Otherwise, it’s sporadic. It takes a long time to finish books when you’re only reading for 10-15 minutes before bed, but that’s ok. Since I forgot to track my reading last year, I also couldn’t quantify my reading life, always striving for a higher number than the year before. Reading doesn’t have to be a numbers game. That used to serve me well, but no longer does. Reading more slowly means that I am remembering more of what I read and also enjoying more. It means I am also far more picky. If I don’t love it, I’m not going to spend my precious reading time trying to finish it just so I can say I did.

Second, I have discovered that I love rereading books. I’ve never spent much time rereading, but last year, it feels like a quarter of my reading life was rereading. Many professional development books I wanted to revisit. My favorite comfort reads–Hilary McKay’s Casson Family novels; Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle; Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontes Went to Woolworths. Poetry. Picture books. And since November, my bedtime reading has been a rereading project. First, Jane Austen in chronological order, which was such an incredible delight. And now Barbara Pym’s decidedly Austenesque novels, in more or less chronological order too.

What has your reading life been like over the past year?






31 responses to “Reading During a Pandemic: Slice of Life #sol21 12/31”

  1. Terje Avatar

    You are not the first person who has told that their reading identity and habits changed over the year. It was surprising and absolutely ok. For me personally reading was the one anchor that allowed me to stay sane.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I LOVE reading about those readers for whom reading was the balm and anchor during this past year. I have several penpals (a topic for another slice) who read more than ever or who discovered the joy of reading for the first time during the pandemic. Those are wonderful stories. What were some of your favorite books over the past year?

      1. Terje Avatar

        Memoirs of a Polar Bear, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, The History of Bees, and The Testaments.

  2. dianelisa2 Avatar

    It’s interesting to hear about your experience and how your reading has changed. I have read voraciously this past year. When the libraries were closed, I found comfort in rereading books at home — something I rarely did before. Now, I reserve books at the library or go there to browse. There is always something wonderful awaiting me!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I think my reading life will get a boost when I am going to libraries again, and I guess now that I am fully vaccinated I feel more comfortable going back. I definitely have missed the library this year!!

  3. Jackie Higgins Avatar
    Jackie Higgins

    I couldn’t read fiction for months. I just couldn’t focus. I’ve picked up a few here and there recently but not like I used to read. I also found myself enjoying poetry more this year. I wonder as the world begins to return to normal (whenever that happens) if our reading lives will shift again or if they will be permanently marked by a global pandemic?

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I have wondered the same thing! I assume I’ll get my reading mojo back, but I also wonder if some things have permanently changed. Fiction has been hard for me as well, but I did have some success with middle-grade. Haven’t been reading it lately since I am now teaching high school and have so much YA to read, but maybe I should return to middle grade!

  4. Juliana Ellington Avatar
    Juliana Ellington

    I very much enjoyed reading about your reading life. I think I knew all of this, except I didn’t realize that you fell off the record-everything wagon. When I counted how many books I read during 2020, I was dismayed but not surprised to see that I was about 30 books off my usual total. I also did a lot of re-reading: Jane Austen, Angela Thirkell, Agatha Christie, Miss Read, all comfort reading. 2021 is already off to a better start, thanks to great books from you at Christmas! I hope you are recording again.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I’m glad I couldn’t count how many books I read because it was probably around 60 when I usually read around 150. And then I would have stressed even though counting and caring about counting is totally arbitrary and silly! Angela Thirkell might be my next bedtime book choice after I finish all of Barbara Pym’s novels!

  5. jumpofffindwings Avatar

    I took what you said about “abandoning” books and nodded. Too little time for those books that don’t keep me going. I will say that I’ve pushed myself a couple of times and for the most part, been glad I did. But the freedom to walk away is a game-changer. Also, I’m rereading, too, and realized that I’ve been missing a lot! Yikes! When you talk about Sunday night pressure-gone-poof because you’ve let yourself off the hook, I love that. Who are we doing reading for, anyway? Thanks for this engaging reflection.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      Such an important point because often when I push myself, the book was worth it. I just didn’t have it in me this year though. And this question: “Who are we doing reading for anyway?” For so many years I have been doing it for purposes aside from the pleasure and joy of reading, and I think I want to center that more/exclusively going forward!

  6. Completely Full Bookshelf Avatar
    Completely Full Bookshelf

    I completely relate to this post! For pretty much the first three years of my blog’s life, I was only reviewing books I had read in the past and basically got nothing new read. It really wasn’t until March 2020 that I got back into reading, but even then, there are definitely weeks when I’m racing to get a book finished to review. This year has not been conducive to reading, I’m afraid! I’m glad you’ve been enjoying re-reading books; a few weeks ago, I decided to re-read a book that I literally read four months ago! Thank you for the insightful post!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I didn’t realize you were focusing on reviewing books you’d read in the past for the first few years of your blog (love your graphic novel series right now btw). I remember the race to finish something to blog about very well! I do miss the Monday community but don’t miss the race to finish books. Wondering how I can rejoin without putting so much pressure on myself to finish, finish, finish. My mom has always been a big rereader and I’ve always felt that there are so many books I haven’t even read for the first time, how can I devote reading time to rereading? But I think I’m over that!!

  7. WOWilkinson Avatar

    Thanks for the reflection on how your reading has changed. I’m glad you were able to let go of things you’d been holding onto but don’t need (at least for now).
    I’ve heard about a lot of readers who’ve had similar experiences during this pandemic: struggling to find books they want to finish, disinterest in reading, etc.
    Sometimes, we just need time to reflect in order to recognize we’re in a different season of reading (or life in general).

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I love that phrasing–“a different season of reading (or life in general).”

  8. arjeha Avatar

    So many things have changed over the last year. I don’t know that many people think about how their reading habits have been affected. I find it interesting that with the slow down in reading comprehension and retention improved. Maybe something students can be made aware of.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      Great point! I have definitely been getting much more out of the books I’m reading. My memory is never great to begin with, but this has been a good change that allows me to retain so much more.

  9. Clare Landrigan Avatar

    Poetry was a constant for me as well. So many lessons I hope we learned will help us be better teachers of reading. A reading life is complicated and dynamic – like any relationships. It is powerful for our kids to know that and do know how we navigate. Sharing that it’s ok not to the person who reads War and Peace with kids is something all of us needed to hear. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      This is wonderful: “A reading life is complicated and dynamic–like any relationships.” YES! Aside from my relationship with my mom, my relationship with books is the longest and most sustained relationship of my life, and it’s only natural that it would change over time as I change and my reading circumstances change.

  10. Lakshmi Bhat Avatar

    Fortunately I read many books, but at my own pace. Last year I started listening to audio books in Audibles. I started with the complete works of Sherlock Holmes, went on to War and Peace 🙂 , now I am listening to Don Quixote. I am loving listening to books 🙂

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      How wonderful to have discovered how well audiobooks work for you! I never considered LISTENING to War and Peace. Now, I’d be listening for a year because I imagine it’s very very long. But i do remember using audiobooks during grad school to get through some of the longer books I needed to read and didn’t seem to have time for. One of these days I’m going to get to Don Quixote!

  11. mschiubookawrites Avatar

    Definitely feel you when you compare what you think pandemic reading would look like and what it turns out to be. I read less overall, but included audiobooks into my repertoire. I also kept track of whether books were mirrors/windows and written by authors of color. Although I read less, I was more deliberate in my choices. And I agree with you about abandoning books if I did not love them.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I never thought I would say this, but now I see that reading less but being more deliberate can actually be good for our reading lives. Any favorite audios you could recommend? I have Audible credits I desperately need to use!

      1. mschiubookawrites Avatar

        Love it when the author narrates- Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, Glennon Doyle’s Untamed, and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy were amazing.

  12. edifiedlistener Avatar

    What a fascinating conversation! Your post is enlightening and the comments add another layer of reflection to the mix. No one is asking me to read, I have no deadlines or other markers of reading progress or history beyond the books on my shelves, both read and unread. But I love reading and books and talking with folks about both!
    For about half a year I felt let down by my reading ambitions. By September, however, I recovered my appetite and have been enjoying a wonderful range of authors and titles. I just read Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged Glory which is a collection of often humorous short stories. It was so good to laugh while reading. Highly recommend!

  13. jarhartz Avatar

    So brave to pick up War and Peace. I loved Anna Karenina. But I haven’t attempted W & P. The Jane Austin thing is definitely tempting. I think the pandemic changed our brains for a time. So the old ways of thinking and doing changed.

  14. Leigh Anne Eck Avatar
    Leigh Anne Eck

    I have boxes and boxes of books here at home, so access wasn’t a problem for me. It was the focus. Thankfully, I am getting back on track…somewhat! It feels good.

  15. Trina Avatar

    My reading life has felt so fragmented this year. I am finally getting back into regular, voracious reading. I didn’t get into any of the classics during the pandemic, but I have continued to try to read books that share different perspectives than I have.

    Perhaps we should have our own little book club and meet up to talk over Zoom or something.

  16. aggiekesler Avatar

    What a reflection on the past year of reading! I had ups and downs in the past year, reading voraciously at times, and not having the stamina to read more than a couple of pages. I still met my goal last year, but that was probably due to extended quarantine time that gave me time to read when I was bored.

  17. Ramona Avatar

    I struggled to read early on and then broke my reading slump with Where the Crawdads Sing. I’ve been surprised that with so much time available, I did not read as much as I thought I would. Continued reading a bit of MG, oved Echo Mountain and When Stars are Scattered. Listen to the audio version.

  18. karpenglish Avatar

    It’s so interesting to read your post and all the comments too. It seems like many of us thought that we would spend our “captive” time reading, because readers always want more time to read, right? Only we forgot that we would be captive with our families who were ALSO looking for things to do, and never, ever could have anticipated the mental toll and the stress and the doomscrolling and everything else that shorted out our brains during the pandemic. I have definitely had ups and downs with reading, and a whole lot of books that I didn’t have patience for. I miss going into the library and the bookstore and smelling book smell. I have the access to library books online and books to be shipped to me, but just being able to browse is so different!

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