14 ways to get out of a reading slump

Rereading a beloved book is one of many strategies our readers shared for escaping a rut

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Debbie Israel, a rabbi in Watsonville, Calif., used to describe herself as a book addict. At least until the pandemic happened, and a sense of inertia, which pervaded every aspect of her life, torpedoed her love of reading. Suddenly it was taking weeks to finish even a light book.

“And don’t get me started on audiobooks,” she wrote after we asked readers about their experiences with reading slumps. Listening to audiobooks while commuting to work was “once a way of life. Now, listening is a chore.”

To get out of her rut, Israel is rereading, for the fourth or fifth time, her all-time favorite book, “As a Driven Leaf,” by Milton Steinberg.

Returning to a beloved book is one of many strategies our readers shared for combating a slump. If you’ve found yourself in a similar spot, whether your waning love of books was brought on by the pandemic, the disheartening news cycle, a personal loss or something more nebulous, one of these techniques — culled from hundreds of reader responses — might help you rekindle your relationship with reading.

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Reread an old favorite

At the beginning of 2021, Mary Reed of St. Paul, Minn., had a “so many frogs, but so few princes” experience with the new books she tried to read. So she decided to revisit Louise Penny’s Inspector Armand Gamache series, P.J. Tracy’s Monkeewrench books and the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey. “It took five months,” she wrote, “and these series got me through the lean times of trying so many new books, only to toss them aside after a few chapters.” Re-immersing herself in old favorites eventually led her to pick up — and enjoy — new books, including novels by John Scalzi and Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling). “I think that during that second year of the pandemic, I just needed to be with some old literary friends,” she wrote. “It was comforting.”

For Elisabeth Wooster of Salem, Va., Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” does the trick. “Reading something great makes me look forward to reading something new,” she wrote.


Switch genres

Alyssa Neumann of Brooklyn spent the better part of early 2022 in a reading slump. “What helped was completely changing gears from the genres I had heretofore been devouring (romance and sci-fi), and picking up manga for the first time since I was 13,” she wrote. After bingeing Tatsuya Endo’s Spy x Family series, she was able to pick up a novel — “a fantasy with the best opening chapter I’ve ever read” — “Black Sun,” by Rebecca Roanhorse.

The go-to fix for David Richards of Deep River, Conn., is “to put away the book I’m stuck on and start a book from some genre far removed from that in which I had become mired.” Switching from nonfiction to a novel, for example, “reboots my desire to read and, when finished with that novel … I’ll go back and finish the nonfiction book I was stuck on.”


Change formats

Marguerite Katchen of Cincinnati used to have a serious audiobook habit, finishing a book a week while she gardened or cleaned. “But then none of them interested me,” she wrote. Instead, she started reading books before bed, which seemed to do the trick: “Now the last audiobook I started seems fresh again,” she wrote.

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Hannah Boardman of Chicago does the opposite. “When I don’t feel like reading, I will pick up an audiobook from the library and listen to it while I work,” she wrote. “It reminds me why I love reading (the stories) and often, by the time the book is over, I am ready to pick up a physical book again.”


Set goals

Remember those reading charts from grade school? Some readers still find value in accumulating (figurative) gold stars. Barbara Lariviere of Haddonfield, N.J., makes herself read 10 pages a day until she finishes the book that’s making her feel “slumpy,” then she rewards herself with “something fun.” “There’s also the ‘10 minutes a day’ method, which got me through ‘War and Peace,’ ‘Don Quixote’ and ‘The Alexandria Quartet,’ ” she wrote.


Start small

Ellen Fowler Hummel of Wilmette, Ill., hit an unexpected reading slump in April when she got covid and her attention span disappeared. “What I thought would be days of reading while recovering turned out not to be, as my eyes and head hurt, and reading was the last thing I felt like doing,” she wrote. “One morning I picked up ‘The Best American Short Stories 2011,’ which had sat on a bookshelf unread. I found the shortest one from the table of contents, and told myself to read just that story. And I did. The next day I read another one, then the next day I read a story from Alice Munro’s ‘Runaway,’ also on my shelves. … The stories were so different from each other, they reminded me again of why I enjoy reading.”

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Kris Motyka of Naples, Fla., has a similar tactic, opening a book of poetry and reading a few random poems. “I also have opened up books by Thoreau or Emerson, letting the pages open where they may, and spent five minutes immersed in these words,” Motyka wrote. “After a few days or weeks, I am once again ready to start reading books.”


Browse the children’s book shelf

Tracy Kephart of Ohio Township, Pa., stopped reading to her child a few years ago, but when she finds herself in a slump, she reaches for a middle grade or YA book to get back in the groove. “I recognized that even in the worst reading slumps, I always loved reading to my kid, and part of that was the easily readable magic in the middle grade books we were enjoying at the time,” she wrote. “I know I can just read a short story, but kids’ books often are written to inspire a love of reading, and it works for me every time.”

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Janet Reid of Brooklyn seeks out even simpler prose. “There have been times when everything tasted like ash,” she wrote. “And the ONLY thing that saved me were picture books. Bright colors, visual and text stories, and always always always a sense of wonder about the world.”


Let luck guide you

Sometimes getting out of a slump is as simple as finding the right book. Lori Michalec of Arlington, Wash., goes to the library, grabs a book with an interesting title and reads the first paragraph. “If that hooks me, I’ll read the book,” she wrote. “I have found some of my favorite books this way.”

Laraine Wright of Carbondale, Ill., takes a similar approach. “One of my strategies is to wander the aisles of my public library and ‘surf’ the shelves,” she wrote. “I get too sucked into looking at bestseller lists, and I slam those books shut too often, wasting my time. But the library and the bookstore, in the back and dusty aisles, hold great gems that bring me back to avid reading.”


Seek professional help

Of course, librarians and bookstore employees also have plenty of wisdom to share. Patricia Constantine of Frederick, Md., will walk into a bookstore and ask an employee to recommend three books. “I almost always buy all three even if I have doubts,” she wrote. “I am rarely disappointed and have certainly read books I would not have otherwise read.”


Join a book club

For some readers, accountability is the key to emerging from a slump. Though, for Diane Plesha of Bellingham, Wash., joining a book club had many other benefits. After she retired from teaching elementary school, she didn’t feel like picking up a book even though she used to think of reading as her “personal time away.” Four years ago, she saw a post on Facebook that led her to a local book club — and back to her love for books.

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“We have read a wide eclectic selection of books, some heavy topics, some compelling, some adventures, some lighter mysteries, and the list goes on,” she wrote. The club was also a lifeline during the pandemic. “The most wonderful result of reading and discussing books with this diverse group of women is the friendship and support that has very naturally evolved over time.”


Abandon books that don’t spark joy

Life is stressful enough without the pressure of finishing every book you start. Kim Valeika of Layton, Utah, has a rule: “If it hasn’t grabbed me by one-third of the way through, back to the library it goes!”

Sometimes Victoria Bowles of Fort Myers, Fla., will return to a book she abandoned. “The worst part of my slump was last year, when I just couldn’t get into almost anything I started to read,” she wrote. “I hated ‘Hamnet’ and gave up — but then I tried it again last winter and enjoyed it. It made me realize time, place and mood are so critical to reading enjoyment. Now, I don’t hesitate to stop reading a book if I’m not into it.”


Do something completely different

Tom Jerome of Bend, Ore., heads for the hills, so to speak. “I just a take break to go outside, into the garden or for hike,” he wrote. “This lets me reconnect with the reality outside my head or someone else’s thoughts.”

Heather Riley of San Diego turns to magazines, “which feed the underlying need, but generally require less attention and cover many more topics.” She also watches more TV during reading slumps. “And, I find that after a few days of more TV and fewer books, I gravitate back to books,” she wrote.


Think about what you want to get out of a book

Here’s a philosophical question for you: Why, exactly, are you reading? For Anne Houston of Easton, Pa., the answer is essential to escaping a rut. “It took me a while to realize that a slump happens because what I’m trying to read doesn’t speak to how I’m feeling at the moment,” she wrote. “Maybe it’s too plot-driven at a moment when I’m feeling more meditative, or too serious at a time when I just need a break and need some levity. Reading serves a lot of purposes for me, and not always the same one.”


Force it

Leah Carey of Chester, Vt., was one of few respondents who suggested a strict regimen of the stories you most want to avoid — but she makes an interesting case. “The best way out of a slump for me is to tackle something that’s going to be emotionally tough,” she wrote. “I know I’m avoiding this harder work as I reach for another mystery or beach read instead of the book that will have the indelible scenes of trauma or loss. The one that will make me weep and will stay with me all my life. My latest of this ilk: ‘Shuggie Bain,’ by Douglas Stuart. And once I survived the glorious messy humanity of that, I read ‘Young Mungo’ in a gulp. After books like that, I am changed. And I’m no longer in a slump — I’m able to tackle whatever fearless authors throw my way.”

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Have faith

For many respondents, the bottom line was: Slumps don’t last forever. Left untreated, they’ll often go away on their own.

Holly Vestal of Kalamazoo, Mich., has been keeping a list of the books she has read every year since 1995. “Looking back I can see that I’ve had a reading slump (though I didn’t really know that’s what it was called) every January,” she wrote. “Only recently I have been able to identify that January is when I tend to spend my evenings catching up with friends and watching good TV. So I decided to give myself permission not to stress about it. I always have a pile of good books to return to. Maybe not exactly a strategy — but learning not to sweat the small stuff and reminding myself that I am an avid, lifelong reader!”