Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

‘Book-block’: writer’s block for readers

Giles Allen-Bowden discusses ‘book-block’ – the problem you encounter when you try to read a book for months, but just can’t seem to get to the end. 

Reading a book is a process which seems to lose its value as time goes on and we are saturated by digital media. For future generations, the idea of holding a brick made out of a fallen tree and having to flick through paper, follow the words and imagine the voices may be too much. A book may become seen as an affliction they would rather listen to on a podcast format instead. For all the talk of attention spans decreasing in our modern fast, instant-gratification word – a book can be a battleground, every page a new obstacle of cryptic dialogue and exposition, intrigue and plot development.

For all the books we read and can pass through clean in a day or a week, there are just as many which present a challenge just getting through a chapter at a time. This can be because the author loves to digress into his own digressions about his understanding of the world. Victor Hugo does this for hundreds of pages at a time filling Les Misérables with 10s of pages on the Bishop, the Battle of Waterloo, the evils of monasteries and worst of all – the Paris Sewer System. Granted his enthusiasm for the subject can pull you through, but nobody approaching it could be blamed for having trouble facing it all.

Granted his enthusiasm for the subject can pull you through but nobody approaching it could be blamed for having trouble facing it all

Alternatively, the language itself may be just difficult. For all the beauty of Tolkien’s imagination and ability to conjure words and languages, his Silmarillion isn’t usually described as anyone’s idea of pleasant summer reading. Even English at times feels like it needs a translation.

And then of course there’s the case that potentially every character is just either a monster or downright miserable. Anything written by Thomas Hardy can fall into this category, though his characters can become unintentionally hilarious, throwing themselves into terrible marriages and situations for brief spouts of happiness. Sometimes it’s worth asking, for all the praise a work gains, is it worth following the wretched as they go about their wretched lives being wretched? Jean Paul Sartre demands this question with every sentence.

So with all of this said, is there any way of fighting your way through a difficult classic? Well, for one thing, taking a strategic approach may work, dedicating yourself to short bursts at a time. I personally have adopted the policy that if I get to the final 100 pages that’s usually my final sitting with a book. 100 pages, no matter how few have come beforehand isn’t difficult to conquer if you try.

I personally have adopted the policy that if I get to the final 100 pages that’s usually my final sitting with a book

Others may set different steps, but if you find yourself struggling, take a break, and come back. Also, if you are really struggling, try balancing it with other reading which reminds you that all is not bleak, helping with Bleak House which became continuously bleak as the Victorian cast didn’t so much as bite but gorge the dust.

Space out the reading: make it something you do in spare moments. Before bed works, but you may fall asleep, get the book out of your bag in a study break before the doubt sets in – what do you know you’re ten pages in and the battle is already in play!

Always remember that if you don’t like a classic and aren’t taking to it – it’s not your fault. Historical and literary contexts are a large part of the appeal of many works and just because you would rather die by a thousand papercuts than indulge in one more word by James Joyce, you’re not a bad or illiterate person.

Space out the reading: make it something you do in spare moments

It’s always worth remembering as well that some books are only right for a certain time. Everyone may assure you that Jeeves and Wooster are the most hilarious combo in literature, and they may be right, but if you’re not laughing then maybe it’s just not the right time in your life to let them and the rest of the aunts in with them.

So, see if you’re enjoying a work, and know that if you don’t read today, there’s more days to read, more books to read instead and that however much you read, this world is full of books and time, and they’re both there to use.

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