Small Reading

Small Reading

Since the pandemic began, I’ve struggled to read. Part of the root of that has been my fractured focus and concentration, my brain so cognitively overloaded by processing the pandemic and all its attendant inequities that I’ve struggled to pay attention to one thing at a time. Some of the problem has also been time. Like almost everyone I know, my workload increased at the beginning of the pandemic and has not decreased in the intervening years. (Which is not to suggest things were awesome before the pandemic, but merely that the pandemic exacerbated existing fractures in how higher ed is run.) Globally, there is so much that demands our attention and action. It has overwhelmed my ability to sit still and read.

This is, as you might imagine, a problem. Not only do I need to keep up with changes in my field, but I actually miss reading. I love learning. I love being exposed to new ideas, theories, and research in both history and pedagogy, and when I can manage to read I enjoy it.

So what do I do?

A photograph of the interior of a bookstore, where two adults and a child are reading intently.
Photo by Pixabay on

I began thinking about the way we encourage one another to keep writing despite everything. We aim for small word counts – 100 or 250 words a day. We commit to the dailyness of the enterprise (or five-day-ness if you’re me, because time off is good!). We remind ourselves that breaks allow for our brains to low-key work on a problem we’re facing and offer up a resolution we’d never get to if we forced ourselves to do nothing but write.

Could this work for reading?

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading something unconnected to the classes I’m teaching for 30 minutes every morning. I’m obviously not finishing whole books in a single sitting, but to be truthful, the last time I had that kind of luxury was probably 1996. Instead, I’m making steady progress, day by day. I’m allowing my mind to stretch and grow and taking the time to digest what I’ve read as the day progresses. This has the obvious benefit of allowing me to actually whittle down that ‘to read’ pile. But it also has reduced my anxiety. I had no idea quite how taxing I found all the recommendations for new books on my social media feeds until I stopped feeling panic about never catching up. I may, truly, never be entirely on top of my fields because there is so much good stuff out there. But now I know I’m doing something toward staying engaged, and whew, that’s a relief.

I really like this practice. It reminds me, every day, that I do it that I am not reducible to the hours I spend at the archive, in a classroom, or at my desk. I am a person who reads for the satisfaction of it and not just the utility.  And my brain is enjoying the process; ideas are pinging around in my head all the time.

Thirty minutes is not a magic number – maybe for you it’s fifteen or forty-five. But there’s something lovely about the dailiness of reading a little something, almost a devotional, not to some external being but to our own capacity for joy.

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