Reading Slumps: What’s That All About?

Don’t you just adore the first book that pulls you out of a reading slump? After an interminable period when nothing’s been quite right, I am falling over myself with gratitude for the existence of Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. It brought hope and illumination back into my life, a quickening of heart and mind, renewed engagement, all vital signs that had been subdued by those disappointing books that left me diminished in some way. And of course now I am worrying that nothing I read next will come anywhere near the standard it set… Whoever thought that reading was a dull, innocuous business, some sort of tepid alternative to real life? It turns out to be a powerful psychodrama, one that has more impact on our state of mind than any supposedly mild form of entertainment should.

This left me wondering what a reading slump is all about. It begins with the books, that’s for sure, but before long it takes on an independent life inside of the reader, activating some kind of hostage situation in which we lose access to our ability to take pleasure in reading. When I’m in a reading slump, I know that my mindset has become the problem, and it will take a hero book to set me free again.

This recent slump began with Ben Macintyre’s book about Ian Fleming and his fictional alter ego, James Bond. I’d fallen on the book with cries of delight and curiosity, as this is the sort of thing I’m interested in writing at the moment, a book about writers and the stories they create. There aren’t very many of them about, and I felt sure I’d learn a lot and be given a model for how to approach this sort of thing in a commercial manner. When I began reading it, I was sorely disappointed. Ben Macintyre is good on spies, but he’s not very good on books. The first chapter was a quick run through Fleming’s life (a throwaway of lots of good material, I felt). Then the second began the arduous task of identifying the ‘real’ people who had informed Fleming’s creation of Bond, M, Moneypenny, and so on. Nothing could be more exciting, the author informed us, than tracking down the originals of the characters. And then, after a whole bunch of brief portraits that took us back over some of the ground already covered in the first chapter, hedged about with qualifications and caveats, Macintyre admits that we can never know whether these people were the templates or not, and in any case, the characters in the books are fictional. This is the thing about books – they are not as easy to write about as it seems. You have to approach them from the right direction, or else you end up performing ungainly twenty point turns to extricate yourself from the pitfalls. I don’t often think about books that I could have done it better myself, but I allowed that subversive thought to trickle in on this occasion.

Then I read that awful John Dunning. Then I finished The Woman Upstairs, which was fine, not bad at all, but not great. And then there was The Mirador, which I confess I have not picked up again, lacking sufficient vitality to combat its soporific charms. And then there was Bill Bryson.

It reminded me of times when I was marking end of year examination papers, and the phenomenon of the 2.2 wave would submerge me. Cambridge classifies exam papers from First class (superb) to Third class (disaster) with second class results in between divided into upper and lower halves. First class papers are a delight, third class are examples of the tragicomic and take a special sort of effort to produce. Upper seconds are good, competent papers, well organised and sufficiently insightful. But lower seconds are simply depressing. When I found myself wanting to put my head on the desk and groan, I knew I was in the presence of a 2.2 paper. It’s something to do with the thought of all that energy and effort and time and promise squandered, on what is a well-meaning but hopeless piece of bull.

The books that put me into a reading slump are the 2.2 books. They are not the worst by any means, but they are the books that make me sad that so much money and effort has been spent on them. They make me question my own views and value judgements about literature (Bill Bryson is the most successful non-fiction author of all time; I mean, he’s good, but is he that good?). They undermine my beliefs about what stories can do for me, indeed, for any of us, and they make me doubt the possibility of originality. They are often based on a fundamental misconception that it irritates me to see broadcast as truth. They must press the right triggers, in other words, to send me into that dark place where I lose touch with the optimism and comfort that they usually provide.

Here’s the thing: reading is more than a bit of a hobby, more than a light diversion. The great goals of reading tend to be either comfort or enlightenment, and neither is negligible. They are tender, vulnerable parts of ourselves that we give over to books to be soothed; our belief in meaning and significance, identification with others, the sense of our intelligence at work, a feeling for beauty and insight, solidarity, shared dreams. The depth of the slump is proof, if proof were needed, of how much reading means, and what deep forces we tap into when we open a book. Don’t ever let anyone try and con you into thinking that reading is ‘a waste of time’! It’s a pleasure that is also profound, and those are rare indeed.

47 thoughts on “Reading Slumps: What’s That All About?

  1. Great post! I’m even tempted to read “Beautiful Ruins” just to see what sparked your enthusiasm. I liked the idea of grading books – might be an idea for book club. We have had a run of 2:2 books there too.

  2. I hate the slump, had one in the spring when I was bogged down prepping to teach some classes I was not really qualified to teach. I didn’t have the time I usually give to curating reviews to pick my next read, nor the energy to give something my full attention. I love how you describe the importance of reading–I want a book to move my heart, and if it moves it in an unexpected way, even better! I agree with you about Beautiful Ruins. One of my favourite books ever (and I read a lot). When I read something that great, I usually turn to non-fiction, YA, or short stories next because it is unlikely that that standard will be met again straight away. When I have more time, I carefully comb through reviews such as yours to help me avoid the slump. If you want to have the standard met, I just read it this week. Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. And now I am reading Karen Russell’s short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove to give the next novel a fighting chance.

    • That is such a sensible policy – to turn to something entirely different, and not open to comparison, after a really good book. I think I will have to adopt it. I’ve heard good things about that Anthony Marra book before, so thank you for adding your vote. I’ll have to have a look at it, I think. And so glad you loved Beautiful Ruins – I thought it was wonderful.

  3. Reading slumps are terrible and I am so glad I don’t have them very often. I am glad yours has ended. I look forward to hearing about Beautiful Ruins. It must have been really good!

  4. When you spend so many years reading analytically, then you hit the “OMG I DON’T EVEN CARE ANYMORE!” wall, even reading for pleasure is like restarting a waylaid exercise program. I am sooo in the slump.

    • ‘Like restarting a waylaid exercise program’ – LOL! I certainly know what that is like, and it’s not good. 😦 I suggest DVD box sets for a while. When nothing else works, I stop fighting and try a change of medium. Booo, hiss to slumps!

      • I did! I watched all 7 seasons of The West Wing, all of the The Vicar of Dibley, and seasons 1-3 of Ab Fab. Then I hit the skids and tried watching television. Oh the humanity! It’s horrible here without the BBC!

        I’m still just picking up books and putting them back down again, but the dog is getting a lot more walks 🙂

  5. I know exactly what you mean. In the last few weeks I seemed to pick up one book after another that I endured rather than enjoyed. But eventually the slump ends. There are times, also, when I am just not in the mood to read…not very often, but it happens. Those are also the times when I’m not feeling particularly like myself…like the times I go on a low carb diet. Those are the times when there seems to be the yeasty smell of freshly baked rolls wafting around every corner…and I can’t have any. But I eventually give in and order a nice fresh croissant and I find I feel much better. Finding a good book has the same joy as finding a good bakery.

    • I like the books and bakery analogy! It’s true that the more we crave something, the harder it can be to find (though I expect this applies much more to books than bakery products; it’s not acknowledging the latter that’s so hard!). I agree, there are times when books are exactly right, few and far between though those times are. Then I turn to favourite films on DVD. Usually one afternoon is enough to re-calibrate the dials! Thank goodness we do live in a dynamic world and things are changing all the time… 🙂

  6. While I completely agree with your final paragraph, I’ve never been worried by the (few) periods in which I have stopped reading. Of course I haven’t stopped at all, probably I read part (or all) of one or more text books every week and have done so since I was 18, but I refer here to novels. I’ve had periods (a few years ago) where I read maybe three non-technical books in a year and do you know it didn’t worry me at all. Now that I’m reading about 50 novels a year that doesn’t concern me either! If reading novels isn’t your livelihood then perhaps a more relaxed approach to the periods when you (I am generalising here, I do not imply Victoria or any of the current commentators in particular) don’t might be of benefit?

    • Ah now, you see you firm up in my mind the point I’m making here. I’m saying that because I’m emotionally invested in books, I’m bound to experience a slump when I hit a run of them that disappoint. Alas, I cannot decide how much emotional investment I put into books; that seems to be a given of my life. But generally they pay back so much, that I am quite willing to forgive them the odd bad run. 🙂

  7. Fantastic post, Victoria, and what an interesting comparison with the dreaded 2:2 essay. (I love Bryson’s Mother Tongue and Shakespeare, incidentally, but those are the only two I’ve read.)

    My reading slumps don’t seem to be related to the books I read, they just come along about once a year – and I have to turn to the Provincial Lady or Agatha Christie to dig me out.

    • Hmm, I should try one of Bryson’s language-based books. They may evade the final-stretch-collapse that his travel books seem subject to. And I love your anti-slump books; they are exactly the sort I have used myself in the past, very successfully!

  8. Was The Woman Upstairs a 2.2 book? I’d have called it a 2.1 — it was just fine for me, not great, as well, but still I’d have given it a 2.1.

    (Talking about grades in England is putting my right back into my year studying abroad, and how much I fretted over the possibility of getting a 2.2. I still feel anxious thinking about the possibility of a 2.2.)

    • Oh I do agree – The Woman Upstairs was a 2.1. It just happened to fall in the middle of a slump and couldn’t quite alleviate it. Oh and that 2.2 thing does go away eventually, but you are still such a young thing, darling. Give it another decade and you’ll be laughing.

  9. I’ve had my fair share of reading slumps but I’m not entirely sure where they come from. Sometimes it’s just a sequence of really bad book choices.
    I’m glad you snapped out of it. It’s such a drag.

  10. Although I don’t think I have reading slumps (reading four or five books at a time has something to do with this), I do get that despair from reading mediocre books and student papers until it seems like no one in the entire world is putting enough of themselves into what they write. And then you find that one good book and it’s like the sun coming back out from behind a cloud.

    • Yep, reading four or five books at a time is a sure sign of the misery of a reading slump. Then I force myself to read all the “ends” of the books — sometime something will shine through and I’m off again and out of the slump.

      • Funny you should say that – I reorganised my bedside pile last night, which too often turns out to be the place where books go to die. There were several unfinished ones that I really felt I should pick up again and complete. Thank you for the encouragement!

    • That’s a really good way to think of it – no one is putting enough of themselves into what they write. That is so true with the bad student papers – they are so often some sort of parroting of things they have not quite heard. If they actually looked at them with their intelligence rather than their anxieties, they would know that. I like your thinking!

    • Oh I hear you! What IS that cover all about? It’s like hate mail from the publicity department. Put brown paper around it and read it. The book itself is just fab.

      • A discussion I have had (well tried to have) on a number of occasions is why people are so (in my view of course) hung up on book covers? Perhaps it is because I grew up surrounded by a large (few thousand) library of books few of which had any significant cover art (and Penguins were colour coded) that I feel so unaffected by the cover of a book.

      • Ah, you might have to have that discussion with someone else. I’m quite okay with French novels, which all have perfectly plain covers when they are newly published. I like a lovely cover, but it’s not a very important thing for me.

  11. Maybe that is why (without really realizing it) that I am such a ‘book grazer’ dipping into so many books looking for the one that will really take me away from my own life (so I am probably much more of a comfort reader–and that’s okay, right?). I read lots of really good and entertaining books but those really, really special ones are fewer and far between. Hopefully you are out of your slump now. I have heard good things about Beautiful Ruins–must get myself a copy now! Let’s hope Marjorie Morningstar is better than a 2.2 book!

    • Oh it is perfectly okay to be a comfort reader. I am 75% of the time, I’d say. And I think I do better when I have three or four books on the go at once. Sometimes it really helps to have a variety; less pressure on any one individual book. I really loved Beautiful Ruins – I’ll review it in the week, and I have my fingers crossed for Marjorie Morningstar. It looks great!

      • Oh dear another word (two actually) DP doesn’t understand – “comfort reader”. He certainly doesn’t disapprove at all, but genuinely I do not seek comfort from books.

      • My theory is that books offer two things – comfort and illumination. Most people are in it for one or the other, and some of us like both. But the fact that the two are so different is for me the origin of all the ghettos and the arguments surrounding literature and genre fiction. It can become a very emotive topic (though you’ll be happily free of all that! 🙂 ).

  12. I think reading a lot of mediocre books in a row leaves me feeling puzzled more than anything else: baffled, bewildered. I know there are hundreds of thousands of wonderful books out there, so why aren’t they in my hands today? Guess I’ll have to try again!

    I got another one of Jess Walter’s books for my birthday (he is a local author for me): The Financial Lives of Poets. I’m looking forward to it much more now that I know you are loving Beautiful Ruins.

    • I’d seen The Financial Lives of Poets in the bookshop and failed to put two and two together, duh! Only now do I realise they are written by the same person. This is why I taught at Cambridge of course, my sparkling intellect. 😉 You make me laugh, again! Why aren’t those great books in my hands? I am going to borrow this as my mantra for any future reading slumps. It’s perfect.

  13. I totally agree about the 2:2 books being the most depressing. For me, they’re the ones where I feel most aggrieved with the author; they’re the ones where I feel there’s plenty of potential that is just sitting there without being used at all. They have a flabby, unfinished feel. When I’ve read a few in a row it really stands out to me when I come across a book that feels finished. It doesn’t have to be something I wouldn’t change at all if I could, but it feels like the author knew what wanted and the book is what they wanted it to be – an individual, distinct thing. It’s such a solid feeling in comparison.

    • That’s it! That’s it exactly – they feel unfinished. Thank you for providing me with just the right word for the feeling I’m left with. Complete disasters are easily dismissed. It’s the almost-but-not-quite that is so frustrating.

  14. A wonderful post – I love your analysis of what a slump is. I always resort to bestseller thrillers or dramas to get me out, and give my brain a rest (probably why I enjoyed that novel by a certain TV presenter!)

    • I say, whatever works is good! Between you and me, I find Lee Child can be very good for that sort of thing (and Agatha Christie). Probably giving the brain a rest is an important part of it. That’s a good point.

  15. Reading slump=hostage situation requiring a hero for rescue; so agree! What a marvelous analogy. I began Beautiful Ruins and wasn’t enamored, just like Life of Pi. Must try those two again. Now I’m mesmerized by Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, as I was with The Light
    Between the Oceans by M. L. Stedman. I never expected books from the best seller list to speak so loudly to me.

    • Life after Life is on my list. Usually not big on best seller lists either. I hope you do give Beautiful Ruins another go–it is worth it. Was not a fan of Life of Pi either, one of the rare occasions when I thought the film was better than the book! Am currently reading The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, ostensibly about baseball (the reason I kept putting it off as I am not really into baseball, but it kept showing up on various lists) but really so much more.

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