Reading With A Chronic Illness – Tips And Tricks

Pippa comfortably propped up on grey sofa, one leg bent up. Hair down, wearing red t-shirt and blue demin dungarees. Shelves of rainbow bookshelf (mostly blue and yellow) visible in background.

When you’re going through any kind of adversity, reading can be a lifeline.

Whether you’re craving pure escapism or seeking solidarity in stories that mirror your own, there are books out there that can give you exactly what you need, right when you need it. And I can only speak for myself here, but I truly believe my love of reading has shaped the person I’ve become.

The problem, however, is that when you’re dealing with a chronic illness, immersing yourself in the world of reading isn’t always straightforward. Brain fog and cognitive impairments make it difficult to concentrate, issues with memory make following plotlines and narratives more challenging, and even the simple act of holding a physical book open can be demanding on painful muscles and joints.

As somebody who has contended with all of the above issues in varying levels of severity over the years, I feel incredibly fortunate that my lifelong love of reading hasn’t been completely jeopardised by my condition. There was only a very small period of time where I wasn’t reading at all, but that alone made me realise how much of a privilege this very thing can be.

Now, you know better than anybody what your own capabilities are. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that even with all the advice in the world, reading simply won’t be possible for everybody with a chronic illness. However, with this post, I wanted to share a few tips and tricks to hopefully break things down for anybody looking to test the waters for themselves…

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  1. Find Books That Appeal To You

This one might seem like common sense, but choosing a subject matter that appeals to you is the perfect way to ease yourself in. Instead of opting automatically for the bestseller list or the books that everybody seems to be talking about, consider what would spark your interest. Would you prefer classic or contemporary reads? Fiction or non-fiction? Humour, romance, thriller, or another genre? Middle Grade, Young Adult or Adult? Is there a subject matter or theme that particularly appeals to you? Perhaps there’s a film or series you’ve enjoyed that was based on a novel? If you’re new to reading and feel daunted by the idea of tackling a full novel, consider starting off with a collection of short stories.

Use sites such as Waterstones* or Goodreads to search for books you’re interested in, or if you know you have similar tastes to bloggers or ‘Booktubers’, use their social media to see what they’ve been reading. If more than one book jumps out to you, I highly recommend creating an online or offline ‘To Read’ list that you can continually add to, so you have titles on standby for next time as well.

  1. Consider The Book’s Layout

Something that isn’t acknowledged as much as I feel it should be in the book world is that the layout of a book’s inside pages can have a significant effect on the reading experience. Pages comprised of a small font size, lack of spacing and essentially as many words as humanly possible crammed on to them is of course going to feel challenging with cognitive impairments, so my best advice would be to be conscious of this when choosing your reads.

Some of these elements can be adjusted manually if you’re using electronic reading devices (we’ll come to these shortly!), but if you prefer reading physical books, I’ve found Young Adult (YA) books to generally feel less overwhelming in their structure. It might even be worth considering different modes of writing. Sarah Crossan, for example, tells stories in verse: writing with a specific rhythm, meaning text is often broken down into much more concise sections than paragraphs would be. You can find a selection of Sarah Crossan’s books here*; you should be warned that both Moonrise and One shattered my heart into tiny little pieces.

  1. Read Little And Often

As a bookish person, I wish more than anything that I could settle down and read for hours and hours at a time, passing the afternoon lost in a whole other world. The unfortunate reality is that reading for sustained periods of time can present all manner of issues for chronically ill people. Again, brain fog can make it difficult to focus and cognitively process information (no matter how engaging the story is), and actually absorb the words on the page. Additionally, for those more severely ill, pacing and condition management may mean that only a few minutes of activity are possible at any given time, before rest is required again.

The issue I personally have with long periods of reading is a bit of a strange one: there seems to be a bizarre correlation between ME/CFS and eye health, and even with prescription glasses and taking all precautions, it’s almost as if my eyes run out of energy and stop processing information when they’ve had enough. Chronic illness really is the gift that keeps on giving, hey?

So, if you still want to read a lot, how do you get around this issue? I’ve found that you can still make your way through books efficiently by reading little and often throughout the day, rather than in one big sitting. I generally read a bit in the morning with my cup of tea, sometimes in the afternoon, and before I go to bed. Find the times that naturally work for you, and never feel under pressure to commit to long periods of uninterrupted reading.

  1. Read Along With Others

If you’re somewhat new to reading and feel daunted by the prospect, there can be value in reaching out to others via book clubs or readalongs. Being able to consume a set book at a set pace along with others and discuss it along the way might help you to more easily follow the plot, as well as give you more of an opportunity to reflect and organise your own thoughts on it.

I know first-hand that joining in with regular reading groups with a chronic illness could present its own challenges: physically attending discussions in set venues may not be feasible, and members reading at a fast pace could be more than you can comfortably manage. However, there’s definitely been an increase in online book clubs over the last few years, and even some that are specific to the chronic illness community. I occasionally host informal readalongs and book chats over on Instagram, and accounts such as @chronicillnessbookclub provide a more structured offering as well. Even if established book clubs aren’t your thing, these very same principles could be applied just by having a reading buddy with similar tastes to you. Friends who read together stay together, right?

  1. Experiment With Different Formats

Finally, it can be helpful to remember that different methods of reading will suit different people. Some chronically ill people may find audiobooks easier to follow, with the ability to lay down and restfully listen to them making them particularly accessible. If you’re unsure, you can access a free 30-day trial of Audible and a complementary audiobook here*. Others may prefer to read on Kindles or other digital devices*, which can be tailored for various accessibility needs: making text bigger and increasing line spacing so there are fewer words per page, easily saving your place when you need to stop for a rest, and inverting black and white on the display to reduce demands on those with light sensitivity. If you’re using a Kindle, you can access a free 30-day trial of Kindle Unlimited, with millions of free books and magazines, here*.

One glance at my rainbow bookshelves will tell you I’m a physical books person through and through, but even in this area there are different elements you can consider. Hardback books may actually be the preferred choice for people who have issues with their hands, such as joints that easily dislocate, but paperback books may be more comfortable for others, requiring less energy to hold and carry about. If you struggle to keep books open by the pages, innovative little objects such as Book Page Holders and stands* may help; and they tend to be pretty affordable too.

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Really, my take home point from all of this is that there’s no ‘right’ way to read: it’s all about finding what works best for you and your individual requirements. It may take a bit of experimenting and trial and error, but believe me, it’s worth it. If you’re chronically ill and feel capable of reading, I wholeheartedly recommend giving it a go. It really can change everything.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, here are a few other resources you may find helpful:

You can also find plenty of reading chats and recommendations on my Instagram, Twitter and Goodreads accounts!

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