Guilt Trip: Accepting My Reading Slump by Donalyn Miller

I pack books in my suitcase before packing clothes. I share book recommendations in my email signature. Every place I inhabit—my car, my classroom, and every room of our house—overflows with books. I talk about books and reading with anyone who will listen (and probably a few people who wish I would stop). I am well-known as a reader and reading teacher. As Chris Lehman said in this blog post last year, “…when you think ‘Donalyn Miller’ you instantly think reading.” My husband, Don, and our daughter, Sarah, read. My students read. All of my friends read. I am not interesting when talking with nonreaders. My conversational oeuvre beyond reading is limited to weather, the sequester, and why the Cowboys should get rid of Tony Romo. Reading touches every aspect of my personal and professional life. That’s why my recent reading slump saddens me. I haven’t enjoyed reading lately.

If you’re surprised, imagine how I feel about it. I am lost. I am a shadow.

I lose interest in the books I start. I am 100 pages into four books. I can’t commit to anything longer than 32 pages. My favorite authors don’t appeal to me. Given the option between falling asleep to episodes of Elementary, or falling asleep across my book, I choose the TV. I still order books and engage in conversations on Twitter with my book-loving friends, but every book mentioned seems to be a title I plan to read someday—just not today. I have lost my reading mojo. How did this happen?

For the past three years, I proudly served on the Children’s Literature Assembly’s Notable Children’s Books in the English Language Arts Committee. This position required me to read 600 or more books a year. Many of the books I read for the committee became beloved favorites like Hound Dog True, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, A Monster Calls, and The Scorpio Races. My term ended this year, but I still feel pressure to remain current on the latest books. I can’t slow down and read sequels or older titles that I missed or skipped. Reading has become an obligation.

Moving to 4th grade, I spent a lot of time this year reading books that my students will enjoy. I want to reach the same level of confidence when making book recommendations that I had with my former middle school students. I admit that I do not love Geronimo Stilton and often wish there was a zombie edition of his books. It is hard for me to read for my own enjoyment when I cannot pass the book to a child, and I feel guilty reading the dystopian thrillers and high fantasy epics that I prefer. Reading has become work.

I spend every night after school and every weekend writing. Late on my deadline for Reading in the Wild, reading seems irresponsible and selfish. If I have ten minutes to spare, I need to write more. I enjoy writing, but it surprises me how much it cuts into my reading life. I can’t fall into a book right now. Endlessly obsessing over every word of my manuscript, the last thing I want to look at when I take a break is more writing—especially brilliant, polished, published writing. Reading has become an indulgence.

I know that I will fall back in love with reading again. We are just taking a break. I have wandered into the reading doldrums before and I always find my way through them. Revisiting Daniel Pennac’s Reader’s Bill of Rights (1999), reminds me that one of our rights is “The right to not read.”

The Reader’s Bill of Rights states that readers have:

1. The right to not read.

2. The right to skip pages.

3. The right to not finish.

4. The right to reread.

5. The right to read anything.

6. The right to escapism.

7. The right to read anywhere.

8. The right to browse.

9. The right to read out loud.

10. The right to not defend your tastes.

Do I allow myself the right not to read? Most readers experience this ebb and flow—alternating between reading binges and dry spells. When reading feeds my relationships, my self-identity, and my personal bliss, accepting periods when I don’t read much is hard, though. The only membership requirement for Nerdy Book Club is that you must read. Am I still a member? Isn’t there a difference between someone who chooses not to read and someone who chooses not to read right now?

Talking to colleagues and friends, everyone recognizes periods when other demands and interests move ahead of reading. Why am I embarrassed about it? Perhaps, I don’t think I have much to contribute if I am not reading. I must remember that my reading life belongs to me. I need to reclaim it for myself or I won’t have much to offer my reading community. Here is my plan for getting out of my reading slump:

  • Reread some old favorites. The books I love contain little parts of me inside them, but the pressure I feel to read new books denies me the opportunity to revisit my old shelf friends. I dug out my worn copies of Pride and Prejudice and Charlotte’s Web today.
  • Read something I usually avoid or ignore. Since the books and authors that usually excite me don’t entice me right now, I am going to try something else. I ordered Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life after watching the author, Jonathan Sperber, on The Daily Show. What have I got to lose?
  • Admit that it is OK to read less for awhile. My book is almost done and my annual Book-a-Day summer reading binge is within sight. I know that I will get back into the reading groove eventually, so I shouldn’t stress about it so much. I am not a reading imposter if I spend an hour playing Spore with Sarah instead.

Is anyone else experiencing a reading slump right now? How do you feel about it? What are you doing to rebound from it or accept it? Have you experienced reading slumps in the past? Share your thoughts with other Nerdy readers. We can support each other during our non-reading periods, too.

Donalyn Miller is a fourth grade teacher at Peterson Elementary in Fort Worth, TX. She is the author of The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child. Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy co-founder, Colby Sharp), and facilitates the Twitter reading initiative, #bookaday.