Skip to content

Literature, language, and story help us to understand the fundamentals of the world. In reading, we experience an alchemy that binds the real world to the fictional one, and our own selves to characters who only exist inside our heads. In our time, when we are flooded with all kinds of information, overwhelming amounts of content, and a number of different social performances we must engage with, words and reading have never been more important.

Stories have always been integral to our survival and development as a species. Our ancestors were elevated beyond animals due to their capacity for gossip. Storytelling, and the possibility of collectively imagining something is what secured humanity’s survival and development as civilised species. As Yuval Noah Harari states in Sapiens, fiction has ‘allowed us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states.’ These acts of storytelling give us an unprecedented ability to cooperate in large groups. Stories, narratives, and language are everywhere. This collective group imagination is what allows political and religious systems to function, communities to be developed, and generally creates stronger bonds of empathy between people.

Literature can help us change the way we see both the world and ourselves. No other artform truly combines escapism and empathy to the level that the written word does. It paradoxically enables you to retreat from the real world, while also allowing you to generate very diverse perspectives on that very same world. When reading, we slip into another’s shoes for a few hours. We can be space miners on the rings of Saturn, or a Nigerian family during the civil war, a boy wizard or someone afflicted with addiction. Reading allows us to explore these new worlds without ever leaving our homes. Something that many of us will be familiar with given the past year. Judging by the success the publishing industry has had during the last 18 months or so, it appears that people have rediscovered the joy of reading during lockdown. Publishers Association figures show that fiction sales rose 16% from 571 million to 688 million in 2021. In an era of twitchy, twenty-four hour news cycles, 6-second social media clips, and 140 character tweets, the actual act of sitting down, without distraction, to enter into a book is an accomplishment in and of itself. It can teach us patience, concentration, and empathy. All absolutely essential traits in cultivating transferable skills and improving critical thinking. Reading endures. Even in the face of new technologies designed to maximise the attention we give them, we still feel the reward of dedicating ourselves to a new book. It has provided relief and respite to millions during recent times.

Reading makes you resilient. Within the confines of the printed page, we can resituate our minds in other worlds, other times, and other people. It has been a lifeline for many during the pandemic, as we slip into familiar and unfamiliar worlds in an attempt to escape our own. As detrimental as the last year or so of social distancing, mask-wearing, and working from home has been to mental and physical health, the act of reading has been an invaluable respite. The sudden introduction of a lot more house-bound free time exposed many predominant forms of entertainment as quickly-consumed and ethereal. Books and stories felt real in the face of this. The sheer escapism of slow reading was held in stark contrast to the rapid changes that the world has gone through in recent times. Having said that, one of my personal favourite books I’ve read during the pandemic was Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a novel that counterbalances its focus on a world torn apart by a mysterious plague with its suggestions of the power and glory of art and reading itself. Maybe not the greatest sense of escapism given recent circumstances, but it definitely helped me to process some of the feelings I had about the world over the past year or so. Mandel’s novel is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where travelling performers still play out the works of Shakespeare and other greats from the canon. It suggests the necessity for art and literature during difficult times. ‘Survival is insufficient’ is the travelling company’s slogan that is painted on the side of their wagons. In this instance, and from what we have discovered over the course of the pandemic, is exactly this. Survival, mere existence, is insufficient. Stories have been our nourishment over the course of this crisis. For over a year now it has felt like we are not living but killing time. Reading is sufficient. We need to fill our lives with experience, empathy, and understanding.

Reading can provide us with this. It cuts stress, improves comprehension and promotes empathy. It allows us to occupy the lives of very different people for an extended period of time. Reading is a positive distraction. In a world where digital media screams for our attention on a regular basis, the act of reading itself is revolutionary.

Share this content