How Lived Experiences Shape Our Desire to Read

When I was a kid I used to read all the time. I ruined my eyes by secreting my books away to the closet at night with a flashlight in hand. I received lecture upon lecture for reading during class. I loaded down my backpack with more books than I needed just because I might want to read them during the day. I never left the house without at least two books with me.

I still take a book with me when I go out, and I still love stories and fiction. But the rate at which I read has dropped drastically since I graduated high school and entered college. Now it takes me months to work my way through a single book, if I haven’t abandoned it to one of my desk drawers already.

For the first couple of years of college this phenomenon confused me. What happened to my eagerness to read whatever I got my hands on? Did I burn out in elementary and high school? Am I just getting lazier?

The answer isn’t that easy, and it was one that I have struggled with understanding complexly for months now. But I have a better idea about why my desire to read has changed in the ways that it has. Certain experiences, regardless of how recent, can change how much a person wants to read, whether that means more or less. So let me tell you about some of those kinds of experiences. There are plenty of other reasons out there, ones that I have no knowledge of, but for the sake of this post, I’m going to speak about my personal and specific experiences.

My ADHD

Last year I was diagnosed with combined type ADHD after my therapist recommended I look into being tested. I had taken to discussing certain behaviors and thought processes that I struggled with and had become more aware of in recent months. I spent hours at a time plowing through blogs and articles and forum posts about people with similar issues, and it all came back to one thing: I might have undiagnosed ADHD.

Things fell into place as I read more about the disorder. My lack of impulse control, especially in connection to my emotions, made more sense. The fact that I had always been one of those people who bounces their leg or taps their fingers when they’re sitting down and that if I was put in a position where I had no choice but to sit still I would end up exhausted and drained. My strange and unpredictable trick of zeroing in on one thing for hours without noticing anything outside of my center of focus (hyperfocusing).

As I spent more time talking and thinking about my disability, I started recalling and realizing things about my reading habits that took on new clarity in the wake of my diagnosis. It made sense that I squirmed if I was made to sit down and read text-heavy chapters for class and that I naturally leaned toward media that could provide me with short but satisfying bursts of information (blogs, twitter, lists, etc.). But why then was I able to read so much for so long when I was younger? Wasn’t ADHD supposed to be more of a problem for kids than adults?

Not necessarily. In some cases, like mine, ADHD can get “worse” if it goes undiagnosed and unaided. I grew up taking in mountains of information faster than my peers, making classes easier for me and more boring. Since I picked up on what the teacher was explaining in just a few tries (if I was paying attention to begin with, as I sometimes did not, especially in math class), my brain automatically sought out more stimulation, fresh information.

So when I got to college, and things started getting more complicated, more discussion-based and less geared toward students copying down notes, my brain didn’t have the chance to jump at some other kind of stimulus. My attention was focused on making sure I contributed enough to class discussions, to being certain I was prepared in case I got called on in the middle of class, to obsessing over projecting a certain amount of “maturity” that had not been demanded of me in previous schools.

When I finally took the plunge and got tested, I felt this surge of relief. Finally something made sense about how I worked. But now I notice the way reading has become harder from me as my disorder has changed and evolved with age. My fidgeting gets worse the longer I have to sit still and read. I retain less and have to re-read whole passages more than ever now. I think about reading more than I actually read, simply because it’s easier to think about how great these stories probably are than it is to actually absorb those stories.

Sometimes it makes reading such a challenge that I stop reading for weeks at a time, because it is so frustrating to want to read and find out that it just is not possible for me in that moment. However, I do sometimes find myself devouring whole books in a matter of days as is the case for any of the Chuck Wendig novels I have read.

Yes, my attention span is short, but the fact that I put aside some books early in the reading process is not so much a signal that I’ve become a lazy reader. I prefer to think about the fact that there are books out there that have helped me overcome my disorder’s symptoms so I can burn through them in a short time. It is indicative of the fact that there are writers out there who know how to grab a reader’s attention and make them want to keep reading, regardless of the circumstances in which that reader lives.

Being LGBTQIA While Reading

I came out as bisexual in the first semester of my freshman year at college. Shortly after that (about a month later) I came out (mostly to myself) as genderfluid–a gender identity that applies to people who feel they alternate between identifying as different genders. These realizations brought with them their own problems of course. I felt that pressing weight of isolation in a society that constantly claimed that I was nonexistent or else sick and needed to be purged out. I still deal with these kinds of problems even as the world moves toward a more accepting stance on those of us who don’t fit the hetero- and cisnormative world.

What I hadn’t really thought about or realized when I adopted my identifiers was how narrow my reading pool would get. Where I used to be able to identify with almost any characters, I suddenly found myself searching for stories and characters who matched my own stories and being. I wanted to find a romance where someone like me fell in love with a woman or someone who didn’t identify on the gender binary. I wanted a hero who identified as a woman one day, a man the next, and some days an amalgamation of the two.

But any representation I found ended up being profoundly disappointing. I saw my identity reduced to jokes, stock characters, villains, plucky sidekicks who fit every stereotype in the book. I heard enough jokes about promiscuity and confusion from real people; I didn’t need it from my fiction too.

So I started reading less and less, or else I read and created my own ideas of what these characters were really like outside of the story. I fell in love with the concept of “headcanons,” where I could make up things about characters I loved, things that gave me a sense of actually being real. I didn’t care about “proof” or canon textual reference to the characters’ orientations or gender identities.

After all, how many characters literally tell the reader that they’re straight and cis?

Working and Reading

During the day, and often the night, I work as a barista. I make coffee, tea, ring up customers, and wish them a good day because that is my job. The work doesn’t seem difficult to people who have not worked in the service industry, but trust me when I tell you that it is painful and exhausting work.

I work about thirty-five hours a week, with my longest days being on the weekends since I also attend college during the week. So a lot of the time I’m on my feet anywhere from six to nine hours. During any given shift I am running up and down the length of the store, retrieving syrups, milk, ice. One day I clipped a pedometer to my pants and tracked how far I walked during an eight-hour shift. If I remember correctly, it came out to around six miles.

So when I say I’m tired after getting home from work at ten at night, I mean it. My first thought after finishing a shift is usually “Thank God, now I can go to bed.” In our current American society, most time spent outside of work is either spent preparing for work or recovering from work. When your job demands not only your physical labor but also the emotional labor that comes with servicing and pleasing customers, you go home drained both in body and soul.

While many people would find reading a balm to those pains, there are also those of us who find it easier and more effective to unplug from thought, to watch reality television, browse the Internet, do something that requires little thinking. And there is nothing wrong with that. If that is the kind of self-care someone needs in a society that demands more than just a pound of flesh, then that is what they should do.

For me, my chances to read often come on my days off, before my shift, or on my meal break while I rush to eat what food my work supplies. There are times, when I’m slouched at my desk and watching a rerun from a cooking show, that I want to be angry with myself, berate myself for not doing something more beneficial for my mind. But then I remind myself that this is just as beneficial for me as reading before I leave for my shift. I am surviving, and that is worthy of respect in and of itself.

Everyone reads differently. That doesn’t just go for the way a reader interprets or imagines the things they read. People simply read in different ways because of different things. Sometimes they read for hours, and other times they can only manage for a few minutes. But if reading is something that is important to them, then the only thing that matters is that they read at all.