Our Reading Lives

On Reading Burnout and Not Chewing My Food

My boyfriend is always reminding me to chew my food.

I eat too fast. I tend to hurry through a meal, especially when I’m alone, so that I can get to the next thing in my day. My boyfriend urges me to savor my food. I do feel I enjoy it, savor it. I just do so…quickly. 

I read the same way. Last year, I read more than 200 books. How? People ask me, incredulously. How do you not burn out? How do you not fall into reading slumps now and then?

Part of it is how I factor it into my routine, how I prioritize it. Part of it is a gift for reading quickly. But the real answer, the primary answer, is actually quite complicated.

See, I read like I’m running out of time. Because I am. Not to stress you guys out too, but I’m just saying that if I read 200 books a year for the next 70 years of my life (and I’m guessing I won’t be able to keep that pace every year), I would read 14,000 books. Is that a lot? Sure. Is that enough? Never. People tend to think of time as this eternal resource, but I know it isn’t renewable. I need to use every minute I have. 

Up-close of a woman wearing glasses, with books stacked on her head

I’ve been terrified of not having enough time since I was younger than is normal to have these worries. Losing my memory was one of my earliest terrors, and it took me a very long time to stop compulsively taking too many photos of everyone and everything around me. In middle and high school, I kept notes on my soccer games, and would meticulously document my days in my journal. It itched at me, this feeling that forgetting it all would mean that time was lost. 

I signed up for every activity, and somehow made them all work. I did crew in college even though it was exhausting to juggle alongside my readings and papers. The one thing I refused to do is leave myself with regrets. I would rather regret doing everything than doing too little. I multi-task. If I don’t, I fidget. I need to take careful notes during meetings. I play Stardew Valley or embroider while I’m watching TV shows. My anxiety demands productivity.

I refused to wait for people to be ready to travel with me — I would travel by myself, and love it, and so I drove mountain roads in Scotland, climbed the pyramids in Teotihuacán, saw flamenco in Seville. I come back from my vacations more exhausted than when I left, because I walk until my feet burn. There is so much to see, and so little time. For me, and for the world — as climate change creeps, charges really, into our world. 

The anxiety tightens my chest. It whispers. There is no time. I try to relax, and I can’t, not how normal people do. I need to be productive. It was especially bad during COVID-19: all travel plans on hold, trapped at home thinking about how in an instant, someone I loved could easily die, and so could I. A friend made a will. I did too. People wandered oblivious to the pandemic, determined not to wear masks, determined not to care, and the pandemic ran wild and dangerous. I’ve always known that things could change in an instant. That’s why there’s never enough time. It’s why I can’t waste any.

And so I devour books. And I can’t take a break from reading. That’s my secret: I’m always anxious. I can’t bear to waste a moment of time. I read on the train, on the bus, while walking to work; I read in line, I read in those useless 5-minute breaks between meetings, I read during commercials. I finish one book, and pull another from my bag. There is so much to know, so much to discover, so much to read, and I can’t bear to waste any of the time I could be reading. 

So, how do I not get reading burnout? I do. All the time. And I just kind of force myself to read, because the best way to deal with my anxiety is to feed it, to lay book stacks at its feet until it’s satisfied. And how do I have enough time? I make it, because I physically must. A day without reading means waking up anxious the next day. I’ll stay up late, use my lunch break, if I must, but reading is a baseline activity in my life: everything else comes second.

Some of that explanation might sound like the ramblings of an anxious pessimist. But truly, I am an anxious but positive, optimistic woman. That’s why I devour. There isn’t enough time — but I will fill it, I will take advantage of every moment I receive, I will use my time well. I will explore, I will turn page after page. I accept that I am a greedy thing with a bottomless stomach, an anxious whirl of desire with goals overflowing from the cups of my palms. I pack my days with book stacks, and drink up as much of the world as I can. 

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