Own Your Passions, But Don’t Let Them Own You

I have always loved reading. As the countless hobbies come and go, reading is my constant. Packed bookshelves line the walls of my living room and hallways and the stacks have begun to collect onto the floors and any other available surface. Most nights, my husband falls asleep as I’m still hunched over a novel muttering, “just one more chapter”. Reading is my time when nothing else seems to matter.

The most beloved books in my home library, now in their well-earned retirement.

By the end of 2020, a year’s worth of panic, hand-washing, and social distancing had left me, like many others, frazzled and raw-edged. Joy was hard to come by and even the most precious hobbies were losing their glimmer. I was experiencing what other avid readers know as a dreaded “reading slump”. When once I would have easily slipped from book to book without pause, I found myself unable to get lost in the pages as my mind wandered off. I let books sit on my nightstand, the bookmark unmoving, for days on end as I instead stared at the screen of my phone, TV, or video game. In previous years, I’d easily breezed through 30 or so books a year. But at this point, I was at less than half that number and I’d nearly clawed myself there.

Reading is not just a hobby, it’s part of my identity. Friends give me book-themed gifts at birthdays and acquaintances come to me for book recommendations. In college, to make extra cash, I worked in the local library so I could be surrounded by books. I knew I had to shake this slump and reclaim that part of me that was slipping away. I also knew that the best way to do that was to turn to my trusted and true genre — fantasy. If anything was going to pull me back into the fold, it was intricate world-building, dramatic battles, a ragtag group of characters, and triumphant heroes.

On a recommendation from a coworker, I picked up Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. Like a balm to my pandemic scorched soul, I dove in and devoured the trilogy. World-building? Check. Battles? Check. Heroes? Check. I shook off my slump and searched out other fantasy series. I found Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels and greedily read book after book, finding myself in the characters.

Like a wilted houseplant, my leaves began to unfurl and soak up the pages. I put my video games away in a drawer and let my latest Netflix binge series go unwatched. I would find myself distracted during work hours and counting down the minutes until I could get back to my book. It felt so good to read again. But now I had a new dilemma. With the stories buzzing in my brain, I wanted to talk about what I’d read.

In the past, I’d been part of several book clubs. Inevitably, they’d broken apart as one of us moved away or had a baby or whatever else happens to people in their 30s. Then, with the events of 2020, we lost contact with each other. I missed that collaborative aspect of reading. I wanted to know how others felt about a book’s ending. Who did others consider their favorite character? What speculations did we have about future sequels? I tried convincing my husband to read some of the books with me, but trying to contain his boundless energy was like trying to capture mist between my fingers. I would have to look outside my own house for an outlet.

I had given up on most social media long ago as I’m not particularly social anyway (unless you want to talk books, of course). I hadn’t used Facebook in a decade, I had never gotten into Twitter, and I haven’t kept up with all the other options that younger people are using these days. But, I’d casually maintained an Instagram, mostly to share pictures of my unceasingly adorable cat. I’d heard about a very active group of other readers who shared their experiences in what they called “Bookstagram”. I figured that this was the place where I would find others who were reading the same books as I was and would maybe want to chat about our reviews.

So, I set up an account with a bookish name and began posting meticulously edited photos of books in aesthetically pleasing setups. I followed other accounts and swooned over their photos. I found other readers who were reading books I’d recently read and tried to engage in conversations. It seemed like the perfect venue to connect and break the cycle of loneliness and isolation that had arisen from our common situation.

A sample of my Instagram feed

It lasted for about 2 weeks before I deleted the app entirely. I was looking for community. What I found was competition. Social media is built on the idea of comparison and self-promotion. It is fueled by algorithms that encourage its user to reach for more followers, likes, and shares. It is a narcissistic game that furthers the toxic idea of influencers, consumerism, and the glorification of an unattainable ideal. I found myself drowning in endless scrolling of false faces grasping for attention and paying far too much attention to each unfollow as if it were a rejection of my own self-worth. This venture had twisted my most beloved activity into a burden.

I am, without a doubt, an introvert so, looking back, it makes sense that social media wouldn’t suit me. I thought this would complement my joy of reading and make it better, but it definitively made it worse. Maybe I was used to the format of a book club meeting where we had an hour or more to casually chat about one book while lounging in a familiar living room. Sometimes none of us even read the book and we just snacked instead. There was no judgment, no numbers, no pressure. We read for pleasure, discussed the details like scholars, and ended the night with hugs and laughter.

I do not mean to disparage or insult those of you who have found a fulfilling community through social media. My point is to pay attention to your authenticity. There are so many things in this world that want to steal your joy and turn it into cash. So many articles telling you how to get a side hustle or monetize your hobbies. Again, if that’s for you, get it. But remember the cost. Keep some joy for yourself, even if it’s just a couple of pages at the end of the day. Protect it fiercely. Nurture it. Share it when you can, but don’t give it away. Find others who will plant a flower in your garden for each one that they take and then return the favor.

Reader. Writer. Window Watcher.