“Books can be dangerous. The best ones should be labelled ‘This could change your life'.” – Helen Exley
Exley’s words resonate with me – how reading a book can be so powerful. It increases our vocabulary and comprehension, prevents cognitive decline as we age, and helps us develop empathy.
It can also help us manage the way we think – what’s going on in our mind. I’d like to touch on three different ways in which reading can help.
There’s using reading to calm ourselves, and escape whatever’s going on in our mind, which I’ll look at first.
Secondly, there’s the way in which reading can help us feel seen; others will have faced a similar problem to the one we’re struggling with.
Thirdly, I’ll explore how reading can help put our problems into perspective.
Reading to calm yourself
I see reading as a form of therapy. Reading can calm and reassure you. It can give you a bit of time out of your mind, with all the incessant chatter that might be going on. It’s an occasion where you can enter the ‘flow’ state - and forget what is happening in the real world. When reading fiction, you enter another world and for however many minutes or hours, you’re there with the characters, seeing what they see, feeling how they feel. It’s escapism.
A quick Google search tells me that indeed, something called bibliotherapy exists, which dates back to the Ancient Greeks: “Bibliotherapy is a therapeutic approach employing books and other forms of literature, typically alongside more traditional therapy modalities, to support a patient’s mental health.” - Psychology.com website
I found a great article about bibliotherapy, featuring The School of Life. Headquartered in London, it’s a global organisation devoted to teaching you how to lead a more fulfilled life. The School of Life set up a bibliotherapy clinic in 2007, working with an international network of affiliated bibliotherapists to help people through books and reading. The therapists prescribe specific literary novels to help with clients’ ‘ailments’.
The most common ailments they see are ‘the life-juncture transitions: being stuck in a rut in your career, feeling depressed in your relationship, or suffering bereavement'. The therapist will recommend a piece of fiction which may just help you with your particular issue.
Which brings me to my next point.
Reading to feel seen
Not solely a form of escapism, reading fiction can also feel quite real. If you identify with a character’s struggle or you are experiencing similar feelings, reading can help you realise that you are not alone. It can allow you to feel seen. It’s a reminder that you’re not the only one feeling this way, others have felt this way in the past and are feeling this way now too.
Back to the School of Life article with an example; the client is a man worried about becoming a father for the first time. “I recommended ‘Room Temperature,’ by Nicholson Baker, which is about a man feeding his baby a bottle and having these meditative thoughts about being a father.”
It can be immensely reassuring to know that someone else out there has felt the way you do, fictional character or not. Someone else is worrying, has made mistakes, taken wrong decisions, or had very bad luck.
Reading can help you look at things differently. A character going through a similar situation to yours might help you see things more clearly. Looking from the outside in, as an observer, you see how a character deals with their situation and you follow the arc of their journey. It might change the way you feel, or help you think of possible solutions for yourself. Remember, reading can help develop empathy, both for others and for yourself.
Reading to put things into perspective
Reading can also help you to put things into perspective. There’s nothing like reading about someone trying to survive in a cold, hard, world to help you see that maybe your situation isn’t so bad. Reading can shift your perspective. Perhaps what you’re going through isn’t permanent. Maybe it won’t have the long-term consequences you’re envisioning.
One example: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
The Midnight Library is a book about regret, using a fictional story to examine what-ifs. These are the paths you could have taken in your life and didn’t. What might the outcomes have looked like? It's a kind of Sliding Door scenario.
There’s a central character, Nora, and we follow her into the shoes of different parallel versions of herself, based on her having made different (better?) decisions in the past.
With these parallel versions of Nora, what on paper might sound impressive; life as an Olympic athlete, a rock star, someone with a super successful career, is a veneer. Behind the scenes there were other things that might not have worked out so well. Somebody dies, mental illness, a bad relationship.
I read the book on a recent plane journey, in a particularly ruminative mood. It was a reminder that you’ve made the decisions that you’ve made in life, there’s nothing you can do about that. But your life is still there ahead of you, and you can do with it as you wish. You can act on a specific regret, make peace, say what you’ve always wanted to say, try something you’ve always wanted to try. You can’t change or erase the past, and you can’t know for sure how things might have actually turned out. But you can shape what comes next.
A second example: One Life by Kate Grenville
There’s another instance where a book shifted my perspective. A few years back I was debating whether to register for a course teaching English as a foreign language. I was looking for a change in direction, but unsure about the future. Around that time, I read a book by the Australian author Kate Grenville, called One Life. It’s the story of the author’s mother, Nance, and showed the hardships she had gone through as a woman living in a deeply sexist society in twentieth-century rural Australia.
The bit that really impacted me was the postscript at the end of the book. We learn that at the age of fifty, Nance did an arts degree in languages, then went on to do a diploma in teaching English as a foreign language and ended up teaching. It was something she’d wanted to do years earlier but hadn’t been allowed to do.
This was a light-bulb moment for me. Rather than wavering about making my decision, I realised how lucky I was to have the opportunity to make a change, and at a relatively young age. I felt inspired by the energy of this person, who at a later stage in life decided to follow her passion and go for it. It helped me to see that I had an exciting time ahead of me, that I was potentially embarking on something that could open new opportunities for me. It reminded me to follow my heart, to follow the things I’m passionate about.
A new perspective
Is there a book that has changed your perspective on something? Perhaps a book has positively altered your approach to a problem or a situation? Have you purposefully picked a particular fictional book to read to overcome a challenge in your life?
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