Reading in a Pandemic: How did it suddenly become so difficult?

By Carol Jago

With Covid19 has come upheaval. So much anxiety. So many uncertainties. On many days I feel as though I am in a state of suspended animation. Although I usually read at least one book a week, I recently found myself unable to focus, giving up on a book that I had hardly begun. My eyes might be on the page, but my mind was elsewhere.

That is not to say I wasn’t reading.

I spent hours on Twitter following links to breaking news. I read compulsively, but none of that reading was nourishing me. Upon reflection, I think that I was starved for story ­­– stories that had a clear beginning and end and were internally consistent. Stories that could help me make sense of the news. Stories that could serve to sustain me through these difficult days.

I kept wondering if the same thing was happening to students — not only those who had limited access to or appetite for books but also the most avid young readers. Was it possible that the pandemic was interfering with our capacity for reading? Was the constant bombardment of “Breaking News” getting in the way of sustained attention? In Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World, Maryanne Wolf warns that we are all getting into the habit of skimming rather than reading texts closely.

Screen Shot 2020-08-18 at 6.50.00 AM
Photo courtesy of Sylvain Maruoux via Unsplash

“The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended “collateral damage” of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.”

Although I found it difficult to settle down to a book, I didn’t stop buying them. (Habits die hard.) Two of those purchases, one an adult novel by Elizabeth Wetmore called Valentine, and the other middle-grade historical fiction by Ann Clare LeZotte called Show Me a Sign provided me with an onramp to finding my way back to books.

Valentine is the story of how five women survive the rape of a Mexican teenager in the midst of a 1970s boom in the oil fields of West Texas. As in the much-loved Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, the sunbaked setting echoes the characters’ inner landscapes. As in Miriam Toew’s Women Talking, these women struggle together to make their way in a brutally male world. I could not put this story down. When in-person book clubs resume, Valentine would be the ideal choice for your first meeting.

Set in a Deaf community on Martha’s Vineyard in 1805, Show Me a Sign is narrated by 11-year-old Mary Lambert, deaf from birth and living in a community where everyone can sign. In her author’s note, Ann Clare LeZotte, who is herself deaf, explains, “Throughout the story, I tried to highlight the differences between sign language and spoken language. I hope to convey the intimacy, complexity, and expressiveness of sign language.” Like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Seeds of Change trilogy, Mary’s story offers a particular window into post-Revolutionary War years. The island community’s prejudice against the Wampanoag reflects the mainlanders’ view of the deaf as lesser beings. As Mendelian genetics was unknown at the time, hereditary deafness in isolated communities was a puzzlement. I predict that Show Me a Sign will be a serious Newbery Medal contender.

At a time when travel is a risky undertaking, books offer safe transportation. At a moment when loneliness visits daily, reading provides fresh company. In a period when troubles are manifest, stories help us prevail.

Carol Jago has taught middle and high school for 32 years and is associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. She is past president of the National Council of Teachers of English and author The Book in Question: Why and How Reading Is in Crises (Heinemann 2019).

Author: CCIRAblog

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