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Posted by Jess Vance, Creative Nonfiction Reader for Issue 9.2

There is a pile of unread books on my bookshelf that have been quietly mocking me for years. These are books I’ve bought (and a few borrowed from friends whom I hope don’t expect them back) with excitement. Books by authors I like, subjects which interest me; books I shouldn’t have to fight myself to read. Yet, I never seemed to have the time to start them—and then in March of 2020 we all gained a lot more free time.

When lockdown started, I thought it would be the perfect time to whittle away at that pile. Then the weeks and months ticked by and almost all of those books still sit untouched. I’ve struggled to come up with a reason for this; these stories would offer a great escape from a world that feels like it’s quickly burning into ashes. Now, after a year, I don’t really know what happened. I know I’m not alone in this, many of my friends and family have echoed this feeling of wasted time. Over and over, I hear guilt about failing to make the best of the time we were given. With all the time in the world, and every instinct to make something positive from a negative, we decided to rewatch The Office instead. When I hear this remorse from my loved ones, I’m quick to assure them they’ve done their best in a difficult time. I tell them just surviving was the only goal, and they’ve done wonderfully. Yet, I still see those books gathering dust and feel guilty that I’ve let myself and, somehow, the books themselves down.

What is it about lockdown that has created this loop of nonaction and guilt? The most obvious answer to me is it’s simply stress. Anxiety has been in the background of every single thing we’ve done for over twelve months, and that has had a profound effect on our minds and bodies. Stress is one of the most well researched subjects in medicine, so the effect of stress on the brain is fairly well understood. According to “The impact of stress on body function: A review,” “being exposed to stress can cause pathophysiologic changes in the brain, and these changes can be manifested as behavioral, cognitive, and mood disorders.” In that same review, it’s noted that, “stress activates some physiological systems…which have direct effects on neural circuits in the brain involved with data processing,” meaning stress can physically change your brain structure, and especially affects the parts of the brain responsible for cognition. Reading, to your brain, is just data processing. It takes a lot less processing power to let Netflix autoplay three hours of old TV shows than to even choose which new book to start. If your brain is already overwhelmed due to a constant simmer of anxiety, the comfort of familiarity can’t help but to win out over the unknown.

You may say: “But, I’ve read War and Peace twice and learned Mandarin in lockdown—I’m stressed too!” or “So, why then is Instagram full of beautiful homemade sourdough and before and after weightloss pictures?” The review addresses this briefly, “Importantly, it should be emphasized that different people may exhibit varied responses in cognition when exposed to the very same stressful stimulus.” Every person is unique, and we all handle stress differently. (Also, no one wins when compared to shiny, filtered Instagram.)

So, I’m choosing to not take my inability to crack a book as a sign of my failure as a person. It’s not a moral failure to be stressed and seek comfort. There is no reason to feel guilty for being kind to yourself. So, however productive I manage to be I’m still going to put my mask on and keep moving forward. Maybe that means finally working through my to-read list—but maybe not.

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