Have you got your copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments yet? Do you think the film adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch will be as good as the book? And what did you think about this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction winner, Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage? If these questions make you feel overwhelmed, you could very well have a case of book burnout.
There are currently two piles of books on the chest of drawers at the bottom of my bed.
Both piles both tower over the tips of my toes while I’m sleeping, but the “finished reading” pile is a good few inches taller than the “still to read” pile. I find this slightly reassuring, because they work a bit like a bar chart, telling me that I’m on track to read my quota for the year. But there’s also a book next to my pillow and another one in my bag. And I mustn’t forget the novels I’ve borrowed from friends, the memoirs taken out from the library, or the mini pile on my work desk.
I always have a book (or two, or three) on the go, and I refuse to let a week go by without at least one night spent turning pages with pruned fingertips in the bath. I’ve also been running a book club since last year. So, why do I berate myself for not reading enough? What’s making me feel anxious each time I pick up a book? Why have I started to treat reading like a military operation?
The answer is something I can only describe as “book burnout”. I don’t want to misuse the term “burnout” – it’s a very real medical condition recently recognised by the World Health Organization. But those omnipresent feelings of stress, tiredness and confusion often hit when I’m reading (and when I’m not reading).
Sure, it’s a very first-world problem, but don’t we all have the right to just sit back and enjoy a book?
Social media is piling on the pressure to read
I feel left behind for being the only person on the planet who hasn’t bought a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments yet. I don’t know when I’ll be able to squeeze in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch before the film adaptation is released later this month. And the never-ending deliveries of hot new reads to the Stylist office tease me even more than the free chocolates and cakes – which is really saying something. I’ve even had to stop listening to one of my favourite pop-culture podcasts because all they talk about is the tens of books they’ve read that week. Don’t even get me started on the #bookshelfie photos that fill my Instagram feed on a daily basis. And the outage that followed the #backwardsbooks trend only further proved just how much we love to show off those colour coordinated covers.
The final straw came in July when the Booker Prize 2019 longlist was announced. The founder and director of Hay Festival, Peter Florence, said: “If you only read one book this year, make a leap. Read all 13 of these.” When I read this quote, I felt yet more pressure to consume more books – 13, to be exact (which, by the way, is three books more than the average Brit reads a year, according to the most recent YouGov poll).
Don’t get me wrong, I love reading, but it’s got to a point where I feel like I’m only reading to keep up with the zeitgeist, rather than for my own sheer enjoyment or learning. With data company Growth from Knowledge reporting that 32% of the UK’s online population claim to read books everyday, the pressure feels very real. It’s also worth pointing out that Goodreads – the platform that encourages members to share their book reviews – has over 90 million accounts worldwide.
And here’s another relevant nugget of truth: I’m a very slow reader.
I envy those who devour a book like a cream slice in one sitting. I have done this once in my lifetime, and that was because I was stuck on a delayed train in India for a solid 36 hours, trying to distract my mind from the toilet situation. (The book was Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love – thanks, Dolly!) I know this might all sound silly to some people, but they are probably the ones who have trained their reading muscle like Jessica Ennis’ abs.
Sometimes, life just gets in the way of reading a good book
There are plenty of other reasons why I, and many others, just can’t keep on top of reading lists. For starters, books cost money, and you’ll get very little change from a tenner for a novel these days. Yes, we have libraries, charity shops and book apps. But I reckon I’d have to explore every charity shop in London before finding a copy of 2019’s hottest read, Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie, on the shelves.
Also, people have work to do and lives to live. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve sat down to read a book and been completely distracted by thoughts of anxiety over work, finances and relationships, to the point of having to reread whole chapters or put the book down.
In the past, this has left me feeling stupid and undisciplined. Perhaps that’s why I feel a certain amount of anxiety when I feel I’m “taking too long” to get through a novel. Or when I just can’t focus on a hard-hitting memoir that everybody around me is talking about. I think about what I’m going to read next before even reaching the final chapter of the book that’s in my hands.
I’m not the only one to feel the book burn
After putting this to my friends and colleagues, it turns out I’m not the only one feeling the book burn.
Stylist’s SEO executive Lucy tells me: “‘Book burnout’ as a term has really alerted me to the fact that, as much as I love reading, I definitely feel pressure to read certain books over others, and stupidly put massive pressure on myself to read a certain amount of books every year.
“It’s made me realise that this is yet another pointless additional anxiety I’m imposing on myself!”
Digital writer Megan also recognises the burn, explaining: “I feel like I just can’t read enough to keep up with the conversation, especially when so many incredible books on topics such as feminism, race and fertility are being published.
“It makes me worry that I’m out of the loop, or sound a bit foolish when friends or colleagues discuss a new book that I haven’t read. I feel guilty, as though I’m not being the best feminist and journalist I can be.
“I see a lot of people, especially over summer on the beach, put the books they’re reading on their Instagram stories with a little caption about what they thought and I get a pang of ‘oh god, I haven’t read that one either’. From wondering ‘should I get the bus today instead of walking so I can fit in another chapter?’ to putting a book down before I go to sleep and thinking ‘I should have read way more than that’ – I put so much pressure on myself that I usually ruin the whole experience.”
So, what does a psychologist make of this idea of “book burnout”?
“Burnout is the ultimate depletion of one’s resources (psychologically, emotionally and physically),” she says. “It happens when someone devotes so much of their energy and resources to a task - or range of tasks - that they become completely overwhelmed, and over time lose their ability to engage mindfully or with any level of focus.”
Describing how mounting social pressures and expectations can affect our relationships with reading, she continues: “If we’re only reading to meet our self-esteem needs, then we’ve turned reading into more of a job or task than a pleasure. It becomes a demand instead of the nurturing experience it should be.
“One of the main symptoms of burnout is the inability to focus, so someone might find themselves at a point when they have to take a step back from reading altogether. In some ways, this could be beneficial as it provides a ‘reset’. When that person eventually comes back to reading they might find it easier to reconnect in a more meaningful and mindful way, and remember what was so enjoyable about it in the first place.”
Dr Touroni also suggests that if we put huge amounts of pressure on ourselves to “keep up to date” then we can easily end up being more prone to judging others who choose to prioritise other areas of their life. And nobody wants to be that person, right?
It’s OK to put that book down
Sharing suggestions on how to meaningfully reconnect with reading, Dr Touroni adds: “Try to remember and reconnect with the way in which you read when you were younger. It’s unlikely to be about feeling superior in some way, and more about that feeling of being transported to another world or place.
“It’s about reconnecting to the essence of what reading is all about, and separating that from any internal or external pressures. Reading should never feel like ‘homework’. It should be something pleasurable and nourishing that provides us with a sense of wellbeing.”
Stylist’s digital editor Kayleigh seems to have nailed this healthy approach to reading.
“I’ve only ever really felt this pressure during my English Lit and Creative Writing course. There, everyone was pretty snobby about reading sensibilities and I quickly realised that trying to fit in was going to be VERY STRESSFUL. So, since then I’ve ignored trends (unless it’s something I really want to read) and focused on churning through the books I want to read. And if that’s pulp horror, then so be it.”
So basically, the only person putting pressure on me to read more is… me. Although speaking with other people who experience the same feelings has been quite a relief, it’s also made me realise that the most important thing is to just read at your own pace.
I’m certainly not judging anyone for “not reading enough books”, so it’s time I stopped judging myself.