Even as a 20-something with a full-time job and a habit of binge-watching Netflix, I still identify as a total book nerd. But a couple of months ago, I realized something strange: I never read. The realization was jarring. Whenever I’m asked, I tell people that I love to talk about books. My dating app profile lists “reading” as a hobby. I zealously browse bookstores in my spare time, eyes roving over the covers of titles I occasionally cave in and buy.
Wow, I thought. I am totally full of it. The truth was that I’d “been reading” the same book for over two months. I’d pick up a book every now and then, if the weather was nice enough to sit in the park or if I had hours to kill on an airplane. But I just didn’t read the way I used to.
In college, I majored in English and read upwards of 500 pages a week. Now I typically don’t span that many pages in a month. Sure, my current job involves reading and writing short blurbs on the daily. But that’s a far cry from actually reading a book.
Determined to redeem myself, I decided to commit. For one month, I would read a work of fiction for 20 minutes every day. I’ve finished out the month — and it was more transformative than I had expected.
Day one was grating to my self-image, I hate to admit. I plopped myself down on my bed contentedly, a new book in hand. As I began to read, I found myself unbearably irritable and distracted. Do I need to do laundry? What will I make for lunch tomorrow? I wonder how my roommates are doing… My mind wandered. I kept trying to force my focus back to the page in front of me but, like a helium balloon shoved into a trash can, it would inevitably float elsewhere.
Well, I supposed, I’m not the book nerd I’ve been advertising myself as, am I? I couldn’t even focus on a book for 20 minutes without getting agitated. What has happened to my brain?
Despite my worries that my attention span was forever foiled, I persisted. Day after day, I sat with my novel.
There were flashes of hope amidst the frustration — on a particularly relaxing commute I would find myself immersed in the novel at hand. The scenes would once again conjure a movie in my mind, just as they used to. Time would pass without my counting the pages or checking the clock. I’d leave my reading session feeling dazed and thoughtful; my thoughts lingered on the plot as I would return to other tasks.
For most of these first weeks, though, reading books felt like a chore. It wasn’t easy. I would be forced to reread pages, circling back to paragraphs I’d glossed over but failed to absorb.
Around week three, something finally shifted. I’d finished the first book and moved on to a second: a post-apocalyptic novel dredged up from the dark recesses of my bookshelf. To my surprise, it was a page-turner. Flipping through page after page with voracious interest, I would read for well over the 20 minutes allotted, sometimes even sitting for a session more than once per day.
I found myself feeling grateful; it felt as though I was gaining something from the experience, connecting with the characters, becoming interested in their fate. I felt sentimental and engaged, learning like a student again.
I remembered what it felt like to become engrossed in a book.
There were evenings when I didn’t even think to open my laptop. There were evenings when I read until well past my bedtime. During the workday, I looked forward to my lunch break so I could sit under the sun and soak up another chapter.
Now that the month is over, I realize how much reading transformed my brain — not just my attention span, but my ability to empathize, to listen, and to put my own life in perspective. Hobbies like reading novels might seem superfluous or disposable, but in truth they’re invaluable.
I plan to continue the habit well into the future, though I probably won’t enforce a daily 20-minute rule. I’ll admit there were days when I had to postpone plans or intentionally stay up too late to fit it in. And knowing the disturbing effects of sleep-deprivation, I’ll try not to lie awake too long.
Holly Van Hare is the Healthy Eating Editor at The Daily Meal with a passion for podcasting and peanut butter. You can listen to her podcast Nut Butter Radio on iTunes and follower her health food Instagram @eating_peanut_better.