One of the singular pleasures of becoming a bookseller was to make even more room for reading in my life, to talk books with anybody who would listen and be surrounded by a constantly changing but growing TBR pile. I'd never really given a thought to what it was that I was reading; from Daphne Du Maurier to Sophie Kinsella, Maya Angelou to Marian Keyes, I have relished them all.
Unsurprisingly, I have always been an avid bookworm. I was fascinated by books from an early age and submitted to nursery on the promise that in exchange for best behavior, I would have access to new books; that didn't happen, and I was found in my coat heading out of the door in a bid for freedom. The teachers learned that all I needed was a book to keep me happily in line.
In my small village in the South Wales Valleys, I was a bit of an oddity; I quickly outgrew the local library and soon had to travel further afield to get my weekly book fix. The nearest bookshop was 12 miles away in Swansea, and I would beg to be left there alone while Mum shopped. I remember well the sheer joy of Roald Dahl publishing a new book and still treasure my hardback editions of Matilda and The BFG. As an only child, books kept me company, into my teenage years were a refuge from the secondary school bullies. I furiously nodded along to a recent tweet by Daisy Buchanan who typed "I have been captivated by the complicated books, but the books that have moved me, brought me joy and saved my life over and over again are the funny, romantic, accessible 'wimmin's' work" (a nod to the recent furore over Jeanette Winterson's controversial book burning).
So, imagine my horror when last year I experienced 'readers block' for the first time. As Covid hit and the stress levels reached epic proportions, I found myself incapable of mustering the concentration required to read even the most anticipated titles on my TBR pile. As a bookseller, this was not a good look. Between February and June last year, I read .2 of a book, my screen usage rocketed, and there was a notable decline in my mental health as I moved out of life as I knew it and onto social media in a bid to ensure the survival of my business.
Sharing my frustration at my inability to concentrate on a book, my colleague Amy suggested I try reading middle-grade fiction, specifically Thomas Taylor's Salamander, knowing my love of magic and strong characters, and for a short while, the curse was broken! I moved on to The Midnight Library, Come Again, a proof of The Thursday Murder Club, found myself unable to put down Stuart Turton's The Devil and the Dark Water, and ugly cried at Hamnet. I was back, and boy did I feel better for it. I realised I'd been feeling extraordinarily guilty for not reading; it was like reuniting with a friend after a falling out. We fell out again between November and February this year,when stress levels won out, and I also contracted Covid, but this time, I knew not to worry to much and how, when the time was right, how to get myself re-engaged with reading.
And the science is there; a 2009 study at the University of Sussex found that reading can reduce stress by up to 68%. It's more effective and faster than other relaxation methods, such as listening to music or (my personal answer to all wrongs) drinking a cup of tea. By just opening a book, you allow yourself to be led into another world, distracting you from daily stressors. Reading can relax your body by lowering your heart rate and easing muscle tension. Dr. David Lewis, the neuroscientist who conducted the study, reported that reading "is more than merely a distraction but an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness."
Many of the books that helped me out of readers block are often described as 'an easy read,' and snobbishly so, there is much to be said about books that keep you entertained, take you by the hand and tell you a story but demand little of you. There is much skill and relevance involved in evoking such strength of feeling in legions of readers and solidarity to be found in those shared experiences. We all know that reading is mostly a solitary act, but books and specifically these 'genre' books bring readers together in a way we crave, and more so now. I've been drawing up our reading list for our book club, and I'm focusing on some beautifully written 'easy' reads, classic crime, accessible nature writing, and some short stories to help us all recover through our shared passion for the gift that is reading.
Emma Corfield-Walters is the owner of Book-ish, Crickhowell, which was named Best Independent Bookshop in the UK in 2020.