Three years ago I realized I had stopped reading for pleasure. It was an unthinkably painful realization. Since I was five years old, two things defined me: playing music and reading. I had already stopped playing music; I told myself I no longer had the time. I didn’t like that, but I could accept it—I had a writing career now, and that’s what mattered. But when I looked at the books beside my desk and saw nothing but research material, the shock went deep.

Reading had been the most important thing in my life since I learned how to do it. In the third grade I got a special pass to the high school library because I’d read everything in the elementary section. I read by flashlight under the covers, because I couldn’t leave Tarzan and John Carter.

I became a writer because I loved reading, and now it wasn’t fun anymore. Why?

I could tell myself, again, that I just didn’t have the time. And that I had just finished writing the last book in a series that paid the rent for 10 years, so I was anxious. But the truth was, there was no real reason to stop reading. Yet I had.

There is something dishonest about a writer who no longer reads. It’s a violation of an unspoken covenant; it says that my life’s work is not important enough to spend my own time on. If I no longer liked reading, writing became only another way to punch the clock and earn a living, and I had no right to do it.

Once I had that thought, I couldn’t live with it. I began a search for something I would enjoy reading. I picked up classics I had always meant to read, such as Swann’s Way and War and Peace, but I quit after a few pages; it seemed like work. I tried books recommended by friends; nothing happened.

I tried Thomas Mann and Nietzsche: nothing. I went further back, to Dante, Montaigne, and even Hesiod. It just wasn’t happening; five or 10 pages, and my concentration would slide off the page, and I would put the book down.

It began to take on a larger meaning, a symbol of lost promise and vanished youth, an omen that my life and career were over. I had to beat it somehow, find something. But the more desperate I got to have fun with a book, the more I was unable to read.

Of course, that was part of the problem. I’d put myself into a perfect Zen koan: how can you work so hard at not working? One hand clapping was a lot easier.

And then, as I was putting down Thucydides with the same bored scowl on my face, I thought, why is this different? What had been so much fun about reading when I started?

I remembered being young and feeling excitement, anticipation, joy, as I held a new Barsoom book in my hands. What had made that so special? Just that I’d been young and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s books had been so good. I couldn’t be young again. That left... rereading Burroughs?

That was stupid, of course. The Tarzan books had been a major part of my life precisely because I was young. I was now a callous sophisticate, with multiple college degrees and published grown-up books of my own. The thought of returning to the purple prose of Dejah Thoris and Lord Greystoke was ridiculous. But I came up with nothing else. And so eventually, looking around to make sure I was unobserved, I began to read A Princess of Mars. And guess what? It was fun.

I went through the entire Mars series, and then moved on to Tarzan of the Apes—more fun. I found myself looking forward to my reading time each day, cheating my schedule here and there to grab an extra 10 minutes.

I finished Tarzan and moved on to books that were new to me—and the sense of fun stayed with me. I hope it’s back to stay. But reading is rapidly becoming an old-fashioned idea; as we all become enmeshed in digital technology, writers become mere content providers, and this simple pleasure begins to seem as quaint as a sarsaparilla soda with two straws. It’s up to us, the writers, to create books that are as much fun to a modern audience as Tarzan was to me when I was young.

I hope we can do it. Life is better when we remember how to relax and enjoy some time with a book.

Jeff Lindsay is the author of the eight New York Times–bestselling Dexter novels, which have been adapted into a popular TV series. He lives in South Florida with his wife, Hilary Hemingway.