I have, and yet have not, struggled with the challenge over the past two months.
The easy part has been not buying new books since I discovered that book buying was more of an anxiety response than I had originally understood. Instead of being tied to a fear of missing out if I didn’t purchase a book the instant I heard about it, as I had previously believed, it turned out to be part of a bigger issue.
Which was that if I was anxious I would seek to focus on something else, usually by opening Twitter or some other social media, and in doing so I put myself into the path of seeing tweets about new books, pre-orders etc. Since what my poor brain was really seeking was a dopamine hit to banish the anxiety, buying something was always going to preferable to simply flicking through my timeline. Buying meant I either had something new immediately (e-book ftw) or the lovely anticipation of a parcel in the post.
Once I’d realised that the root of my book buying was the need to distract myself from nebulous anxiety (which I think we’re all dealing with to some extent at the moment) it was much easier to prevent. I made the conscious decision to break the link at the “I need a distraction” stage so I wasn’t heading to social media in the first place. Now if I find myself reaching for my phone I either open an e-book on it or open my meditation app. It hasn’t cured the anxiety (although I’m certain that spending less time on social media is hugely beneficial to me) but it has stopped the urge to purchase every book in sight in its tracks!
However I am now struggling to actually read the books on my list. As I mentioned in the only February blog post I wrote, my brain weasels have multiplied to extent that I am finding it hard to spend time doing things I enjoy as it’s taking me much more energy to just do the things that have to be done. Part of that seems to be a reluctance on the part of my little grey cells to make room for anything new in terms of fiction. Every time I try to read a new novel or start a new TV show I get about five minutes in and my brain just nopes out. I find myself getting up and walking away from the TV or putting the book down.
It’s a completely instinctual reaction that is both understandable (there’s a limit to what everyone can deal with at any one time and given the state of the world it’s no wonder so many of us are feeling overwhelmed and beligered) and deeply annoying. I miss the joy of discovering new worlds and characters and becomming immersed in something completely different. Yet all my poor brain wants is the comfort of familiarity and the safety of a story that is not going to produce any surprises whatsoever.
Oddly this aversion to all things new is only tied to fiction. I’m still managing to work through the non-fiction on my list and I’m having no trouble with the history based books I’m reading in order to either a) research for my latest short story, or b) review it for the journal of The Great War Group*. I’m not about to complain, though because I’m still reading. The last time I fell into a proper reading slump was too miserable for words and I most emphatically do not want to go throught that again.
So, what have I read from my list then?
Well, when I look back, more than I thought I had:
- The Arbella Stuart Conspiracy by Alexandra Walsh
- Otter Country by Miriam Darlington
- Beautiful Exciles by Meg Waite Clayton
- The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold
- Wintering: How I Learnt to Flourish When Life Froze by Katheirne May
- Seven Kinds of People You Meet in Bookshops by Shaun Bythell
- Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
- The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn
- The Night Hawks by Ellie Griffith
- The Librarian by Allie Morgan
There are only two novels in that list (1 & 9) and both are the latest in book series I’m already invested in, so I was already familiar with the characters and setting and pretty much knew I’d get a good ending so the stakes were as low as they were going to get for me with fiction.
I thoroughly enjoyed all ten of them but my top three recommendations are:
The Five by Hallie Rubenhold – This is a truly remarkable book in terms of content and readability, being the holy grail of history books in that it’s well researched and detailed whilst being eminantely readable and not in the slightest bit dull. It focuses on the lives of the five women who were murdered by Jack the Ripper (unlike all the other Ripper books which use their deaths merely as a backdrop to talk about the cleverness and possible identity of their murderer, reducing them to mutilated bodies rather than people) and provides a deep, personal and moving insight into their lives and the world in which they lived. I have the audiobook version which is beautifully read by Lou Brealey and I listened whilst crocheting. I learnt a huge amount and often found that my view of the shawl I was working on blurred by tears, the list of the women’s belongings at the end was particularly affecting.
Wintering by Katherine May – This was my “going to bed” book for a couple of weeks (I read around 20 to 25 pages each evening just before I meditate and settle down for the night) and it has really helped keep my spirits up. It’s a mix of memoir and nature writing and travelog that defies description even as you read it but creeps into your soul and kindles a spark of light with each page.
The Librarian by Allie Morgan – One of my pre-orders which I’m so very glad I wasn’t able to cancel. Allie (who some of you may know as @grumpwitch on twitter) writes openly, honestly and engagingly about being a library worker at a time when libraries are being closed down left, right and centre. But this is not just a book about dealing with government cuts and local council shenanigans. It’s a book that, at its heart, is about humanity and what you will see if you truly open your eyes and your heart to what is happening in this country. It made me cry, it made me laugh, and it made me very angry on behalf of Allie, her colleagues, and the people libraries are needed to help most. Yet it also gave me hope. Hope that there are enough people who feel like Allie does (and as I do) who will stand up and fight for what is needed to ensure everyone is treated with humanity and dignity. And in these times hope such as this is not only extremely welcome but deeply necessary.
Whilst I haven’t been reading new fiction I have been indulging my brain with some comfort re-reading. One of the moderators of a Tamora Pierce fan page on FB that I follow has been reading the Lioness Quartet series to her children and posting detailed thoughts about each part she reads as she goes and documenting their reactions. It’s a little like getting to reading them for the first time again, which is wonderful, and it set a yearning in my heart to revisit Tortall and all the stories it contains. I’m leaving the Alanna books to play out on the FB postings and moved on through, reading in-universe chronological order. I’ve worked everything set after the Lioness Quartet – the Immortals Quartet, the Protector of the Small Quarter and the Tricksters duo – and am now trying to decide if I want to go way back in Tortall’s history to the Bekka Cooper books or if I just want to pick up Numair’s story. Or possibly wander out of Tortall and back into the Discworld and let Tiffany lift my spirits instead!
I haven’t compiled a list of books I would have bought for these months because my notes on that are all over the place and need more curation than I have energy for at the moment. There will be something in the post next month, though!
*If you are interested in the First World War and would be enjoy being a part of diverse and inclusive group which “was founded as a non-profit, Foundation CIO to promote education on, and commemoration of the First World War” and whose approach is “wide-ranging, considering all fronts, and all nations involved in the conflict” then please do pop over to The Great War Group website and check out joining options.