Reading – when does a pleasure become a chore?

Zoë Miller explores readers’ complicated relationships with their to-be-read piles

Zoë Miller: “reading gives us a sense of connection, a safe opportunity to suspend our everyday lives and immerse ourselves in stories that move us emotionally”

Zoë Miller: “reading gives us a sense of connection, a safe opportunity to suspend our everyday lives and immerse ourselves in stories that move us emotionally”

 

“Once upon a time...”

What happens to your heart when you hear these words? Does it lift with a childlike sense of anticipation? Does it fill with expectation? Do you feel a spark of joy because you know you’re about to be transported to the magic ground of storytelling where you’ll be captivated until the end? These are the sort of universal emotions we ought to be experiencing when we check out our to-be-read pile, anticipating the pleasures that lie ahead. But it’s not always the case.

Despite the streamlining of our 21st-century, light-filled homes and instant, flick-a-switch entertainment, those tottering, to-be-read piles of books are not going anywhere just yet according to friends, social media and reading clubs. Neither is mine, much to the fond exasperation of my family.

One of the more frivolous aspects of the great pandemic was envy-inducing images of illustrious bookshelves being zoomed into our television and laptop screens from all around the world. Some, I gathered, were fake backdrops, designed to impress – which I like to think speaks positively about the esteem in which books and reading are globally regarded. But other bookshelves held treasures that will never be parted with, books that are returned to for sustenance and enjoyment.

However, in addition to inciting envy among our peers, our crowded bookshelves can be a source of personal guilt, when our consciences prick and our eyes glaze as they skim across certain titles – those books we “must get around to reading soon”, the ones we “really should have read by now”, or the classic, “I’d better at least start it before my book club meeting”.

At some point, reading for pleasure can resemble a chore. Tastes in reading can vastly differ, even among friends and within reading clubs. A story that kept one person captivated to the final page could become a challenge for another to battle their way to the bitter end. But is it good for us to persist with a “heavy read”, or refuse to be defeated by dense prose, or plough through the latest “must read” mega-seller that’s leaving us cold in the hope that it will turn into a more enriching experience? Chances are if we make it to the end, we’ll feel cheated that we invested so much time and energy in a book we didn’t enjoy and which didn’t contribute to our wellbeing.

At its fundamental core, reading gives us a sense of connection, a safe opportunity to suspend our everyday lives and immerse ourselves in stories that move us emotionally in the way they address the hopes and anxieties of humanity. While escaping from problems in our own lives, reading enables us to slip into the heart and mind of other people and feel less alone.

Well-loved stories are populated with characters that show us the human spirit can rise above chaos and uncertainty, we can survive the rug being pulled from under our worlds, that no matter the conflict, it’s possible to find a way forward. Taking time out by getting lost in a book has rescued me at stressful times in my life, and I feel so strongly about the restorative power of reading that I included an aspect of this in my latest book.

The House in The Woods tells the story of retired actor Evie, who, following a suspicious accident, is recovering at her secluded home in Wicklow with the help of her hitherto estranged grand-niece Amber. Amber’s perfectly box-ticked life has recently imploded, and in addition to inviting Amber to help herself to a glass of her pinot noir, Evie throws open her bookcase, putting it at Amber’s disposal, pointing her in the direction of Maeve Binchy. Who better to soothe a savaged heart with her warmth and wisdom?

In time, Amber comes to realise that when her brain is exploding with hurt, there’s a lot to be said for escaping into a comforting read, just as I and countless others have found. It’s no surprise that book sales grew during the pandemic as people sought a refuge of sorts.

Reading can be such an uplifting, therapeutic experience, and a vital channel for connection that there should be no room on our bookshelves for books that don’t excite us, that we struggle to engage with, or have characters we don’t care about. Or indeed the books that taunt us with our inability to commit to them, and those we pretend to have read and hang on to in the hope that someday we’ll join that clever circle of readers who appreciate the nuanced narrative or bizarre, unsatisfactory ending.

We’d be quick enough to change television or radio channels or scroll through Netflix if a programme wasn’t entertaining. Why don’t we do the same with books that don’t draw us in within a chapter or two? Sometimes it’s fear of missing out, or feeling the need to keep up with our reading coterie, or it could be a matter of ego and wanting to appear well-read and well-informed that keeps us slogging through the pages.

We might perceive that a challenging read is deemed to be weightier, therefore more intelligent, and therefore a more worthwhile endeavour. Maybe we don’t want to waste the cost incurred. Yet books are such good value for money in relation to the hours of entertainment they can provide that an occasional loss can be absorbed.

It’s good for us to move out of our reading comfort zone, but not at the expense of ignoring our wellbeing, especially when most of us have a finite amount of reading time and there are a wealth of wonderful books calling to us from all corners of bookstores and libraries. Any one of these could be a book we fall in love with, a story that inspires us, helps us tame our dragons, fills us with hope, and in doing so, changes our lives for the better.
The House in The Woods by Zoë Miller is published by Hachette Books Ireland and is out now. zoemillerauthor.com @zoemillerauthor

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