By Martin McGovern
Boston Irish Contributor
The last two years of my career in higher education coincided with the pandemic and during that period, reading for pleasure proved challenging if not impossible for me.
Even with a good book to look forward to at the end of the day, I inevitably lost interest in it or fell asleep after a few pages. And that was with some of my favorite authors or genres, a John Le Carré spy novel, a good memoir or biography, or a fresh take on history or politics, especially of the Irish variety.
Night after night, books lost out to the easy lure of mindlessly flicking through cable channels or checking social media. The challenge was focus, or more precisely, the absence of it. My ability to sustain long-form or deep attention on a specific theme had begun to wane. Both work and age had combined to chip away at my ability to concentrate.
During that period of the pandemic, I spent my work days, as well as many nights and weekends, with colleagues gathering facts, figures, details, perspectives, and insights in preparation for official college responses, statements, updates, and reports.
Linked almost permanently to screens both large and small, my brain operated on full alert, searching for risks and issues and how to address them. Ultimately, the intensity of that process, along with the prospect of endless crises, prompted me to re-think career and change priorities.
As much as I enjoyed my work, it had started to consume more of my life and too much of my energy and focus. An aside: Johann Hari’s “Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again” is excellent on this topic.
Fortunately, I was in a position to retire and did so in July 2021, becoming a part of The Great Resignation. Since then, with fewer structured work demands or deadlines, my brain fog has slowly been dissipating.
My road to reading recovery began in earnest in early November. At Dublin airport waiting for a flight back to Boston, I spent my last few euros on a book called “The Monk.”
Written by the ground-breaking investigative reporter and best-selling author Paul Williams, the book chronicles the life and crimes of Ireland’s most enigmatic gang boss, Gary “The Monk” Hutch, and his deadly feud with rival Christy “The Dapper Don” Kinahan.
Skimming the paperback in the airport and sensing the pace and detail of its narrative, I wanted to plunge in right away, but I resisted that temptation because of the surrounding noise and distractions. The departure lounge and the plane were packed with exuberant passengers finally getting to visit loved ones in America again with the lifting of Covid restrictions.
Back in Massachusetts, however, I lost myself in the book, underlining key sections, scribbling little notes on the margins, and checking references to other sources and publications.
In many ways, “The Monk” reads like Narcos Ireland, a terrifying tale of murder, fear, greed, lives ruined, and the threat that crime lords pose to the rule of law and democracy.
Williams captured my attention and held it while walking me through an alternative universe. It was an experience that prompted me to learn more about drug-related crime in Ireland and elsewhere. Although the topic was hardly uplifting, it kept my focus for 332 pages; finishing the book was pure satisfaction. I felt like a real reader again.
On my night stand and in my Kindle right now, there are more books than can be handled. In order of priority, the top five are:
· “Between Two Hells: The Irish Civil War,” by Diarmaid Ferriter.
· “The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade,” by Benjamin T. Smith.
· “Taste: My Life Through Food,” by Stanley Tucci,
· “Orwell’s Roses,” by Rebecca Solint,
· “The Lost Art of Losing: A Novel,” by Alice Zender,
Instead of being distracted, I’m carving out dedicated reading time. I’m staying in bed on a cold morning to finish a book that can't be put down, retreating to a quiet corner in a local library with a serendipitous find, and stumbling on something on Kindle that needs to be devoured instantly. Amen to being in a reading groove again!