On one of those weird, melty days in January, I took a walk around the lake with an old friend. We talked about the pandemic, the insurrection, working from home, aging parents that we couldn't visit, and how constricted life has been for the past year.
We both agreed that our attention spans, these past few months, have been shot.
I confessed that I was considering adding the Acorn TV streaming service to my TV even though we already have BritBox and they are pretty much the same thing.
She confessed that she already subscribes to every streaming service known to humankind.
And then I made my biggest, deepest, darkest confession. Books, I said, have been hard for me lately. I read some wonderful books last year, don't get me wrong; but there have been weeks when I haven't been able to concentrate on anything complex or thoughtful.
I'm normally a constant reader, devouring fiction, biographies and all kinds of memoirs at the rate of one or two per week.
But for a stretch of time in late autumn and early winter, I found it nearly impossible to read anything challenging. Over Thanksgiving, I reread four beloved old Anne Tyler novels; I think I was craving comfort and familiarity.
And I've also read more mysteries and light fiction in the past six months than I probably ever have in my life.
My friend laughed. Over the past few months she's read every mystery in her house, she said, and she's looking for more.
It was a relief to hear this. We talked about "guilty pleasures," but later, at home, I started wondering why I sometimes feel guilty about reading certain books.
Books, after all, are written for all sorts of reasons, and it stands to reason that we would also read them for all sorts of reasons. To illuminate, to empathize, to learn, to contemplate, to have our assumptions challenged — but also, now and then, to relax us, to take us away. To help us feel less anxious when the world is fraught.
A number of studies have been published recently about how people's reading habits have changed since COVID-19. The consensus is that genre reading is up — romance, science fiction, mystery, dystopian. After May and the death of George Floyd, books on racial justice filled the bestseller lists for many weeks.
But nowhere did I see my particular problem addressed: a difficulty in concentrating, which led me to seek out plot-driven books with tidier endings.
I turned, for instance, to poet Patrick Kavanagh's 1938 memoir about growing up in rural Ireland, and chick-lit from Great Britain, and British gardener Monty Don's new book about the wild creatures that live on his land.
These months of raging pandemic, violent protests and democracy under pressure gave me all the uncertainty and tension that I could handle. At the end of a day spent following the news intently, Acorn TV and a captivating mystery aren't guilty pleasures — they're good for me, like a walk in the park or a long bike ride.
Still, I am certain that as the year goes on I will regain my joy in reading challenging books. I sense that it's already starting to happen.
What about you? Have you found that your attention span has changed during the past year? Are you reading differently than you once did? Do you think the change is temporary, or permanent?
Write me at email@example.com, include your full name and city, and I'll use your thoughts in a future column.
And now, back to Monty Don. He's writing about dragonflies. I am riveted. More important, I am calm.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune's senior editor for books. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.