reading books

Reading books: this type of reading could help cure burnout and reduce stress

There’s real joy to be found in rationing out the pleasure of reading a good book – and slow, mindful reading could even reduce stress and cure burnout. For World Book Day 2020, Christina Quaine writes in defence of taking a snail’s pace approach to getting through your reading pile.

Eight months. That’s how long it took me to read Anne Tyler’s 1985 novel, The Accidental Tourist

Some people make and break relationships, or sell and buy a new home, or almost grow an entire human, in that time.

At just 353 pages, The Accidental Tourist is not a very long book. And the issue wasn’t that I didn’t love it, and so trudged through at a snail’s pace. It took me ages because I have no commute during which to read (as a freelancer, I work from home), I’m rubbish at reading in bed because the minute I’m anywhere near my duvet my eyes physically cannot stay open, and there’s also my lack of free time and energy thanks to being in charge of two small boys. 

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My slow reading became a running (plodding?) joke between my husband and I, who is a lightning-quick reader. But when I finally finished the last page, I felt completely bereft. The book had been with me for two-thirds of a year, during which time I was pregnant with my second child. It came with me in my hospital bag and it was there throughout a long and traumatic labour. I didn’t really touch the book during that time, but it was somehow comforting to know it was there. Its curled-up corners, charity shop smell and jacket cover provided familiarity and reassurance when everything around me felt frightening and uncertain. 

Afterwards, during fuzzy-eyed nights spent breastfeeding, I would read the odd page here and there. And then – once my baby became a bit less newborn and slightly more onboard with nighttime sleep – I could pick it up more frequently, and eventually I reached the end.

Reading books in bed – the ultimate past-time?

While I’ll always be keen to tick off the titles on those ‘100 books to read before you die’ lists, I realise now that there is no shame in spending ages with a book. It is the antithesis to our fast-paced consumption of media, says Dr Jessamy Hibberd, chartered clinical psychologist and author of The Imposter Cure.

“[Slow reading] reduces stress,” she says. “The great thing about reading is that you can’t do anything else at the same time, which is rare in our fast-paced lives when we split our attention between multiple activities – podcasts, social media, emails, TV.

“This makes it a very mindful activity. You’re engaged and focused on what you’re reading, which takes you away from everything going on in your life, providing you with another world to step into.”

There’s real joy in “rationing out the pleasure,” says Hilda Burke, psychotherapist and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook.

“You potentially absorb more when you read slowly, and I say this as someone who tends to gobble up books. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction and I’ve noticed that I’m racing to the conclusion. At the end, it’s like a comedown – I’ve found out what I needed, but then I’m left asking, well now what? It’s a bit like binge-watching a boxset,” she says. 

“I have recently started making an effort to slow down with books I’m really enjoying because it’s all going to be over too quickly if I read too fast. I want to enjoy another week with those characters, rather than just two nights.”

Reading books: “Read no more than a chapter at a time and see how that feels, and how it impacts your enjoyment of your book.”

If you fancy giving literary grazing a go, Dr Hibberd has some advice. “Give yourself permission to read. Often we prioritise other things we see as more important, but you need downtime to switch off and feel your best. Think about how you feel when you’ve been reading and compare this to how you feel after other things that steal your time. Remind yourself of this when you’re reaching for your phone rather than your book. It’s also a good idea to put distractions, such as your laptop, in another room,” she says.

Meanwhile, Burke recommends experimenting with your reading pace. “Try giving yourself a quota. Read no more than a chapter at a time and see how that feels, and how it impacts your enjoyment of your book,” she says.

Personally, I think there is much to be said for putting the brakes on a good read. A book is unassuming. It is quietly confident of your faithfulness. It never asks too much of you, and lets you dip in and out when you fancy it. And you can’t say that for a Netflix binge. 

Five books to savour reading

Dr Hibberd and Stylist readers share their favourite slow-burn novels.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

“I’ve just finished re-reading The Goldfinch, which is a great slow read. I had a lot on and wanted something I knew I’d enjoy – it was nice going back to a book I’d read a while ago, and I was amazed by how much I’d forgotten.”

Recommended by Dr Hibberd.

Poems and Prose by Elizabeth Bishop

“These have been beside my bed for three years. As they are poems and short pieces of prose, I can immerse myself in Bishop’s world for a few minutes at a time. She evokes times and places so succinctly that you’re in Nova Scotia or Brazil within seconds. It’s like jumping into a plunge pool – refreshing, a little demanding and overall a pure joy.”

Recommended by Ann Storr, 38, founder of StorrCupboard food waste project

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

“I’ve been reading this for over a year. It’s very rare for me to read a book quickly anymore because of my busy lifestyle as a working mother, but the characters are great and I always jump right back in.”

Recommended by Yvadney Davis, 38, fashion stylist. 

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett

“This was the last book written by Pratchett, one of my favourite authors, before his death in March 2015. It sat on my shelf for a year before I could bring myself to read it and then it took months to get through it, whereas normally, I’d finish one of his books within a few days. It was pretty emotional.”

Recommended by Kirsten Rees, 37, book editor and author.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

“I spent three months reading this because it took me through the emotional ringer. I laughed and I cried, and I’m glad I took my time because it meant I could really take it all in.”

Recommended by Lex Thomson, 32, business owner

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This piece was originally published in February 2020

Images: Getty, Unsplash