Reading is a past time that stretches back hundreds of years. Centuries ago, people read as a means of escaping the hardships of everyday life. They read as a means of leaving for greener pastures – mentally at least, anyway. People, myself included, have often complained about the weighty tomes Victorian novels tend to be, but the reasoning for this isn’t because Victorian authors were boring and simply enjoyed waffling on. The truth, in fact, is far more poignant. The everyday Victorian often lived in the village, town or city where they were born until the day they died. They saw the same buildings day in, day out. The same people, the same trees, the same animals…the same everything. When we emit groans as we suffer at the hands (well, words) of lengthy descriptions, it’s important to remember that many readers back then needed those descriptions. They hadn’t seen the things being described and couldn’t browse through Google for pictures or definitions like you or I can.
Reading was important back then. It transported readers elsewhere, offering them a brief respite from the disease-ridden, short-lived reality of their everyday lives.
But reading is more important than ever in the 21st century. “Why?” I hear you cry. Well..
- Life is stressful. I’m in no way saying that life in past centuries wasn’t stressful. I mean, had I lived in the Brontes’ home town of Haworth, where the average life expectancy was a measly 30 in the early to mid 1800s, I would have been stressed beyond belief. There’s so much I want to see and do yet and had I lived in that area and era, I would have been painfully aware of my fragile mortality. In early Victorian Haworth terms, I’m an old lady! But my point is that 21st century life presents its own stresses, stresses that affect each and every one of us on a daily basis. Society pushes us to the metaphorical edge in a number of ways. It’s drilled into us from an early age that we’ve gotta succeed in everything we do; we’ve got to pass our exams, we’ve got to excel in our careers, we’ve got to settle down and pop out babies like our lives depended on it. It’s a lot of pressure and if we don’t meet these expectations, it’s all too easy to feel like we’ve failed, not only ourselves but those around us. Is this societal pressure contributing to the rise in mental heath disorders such as anxiety and depression? I mean, my own battles with these disorders manifested when I was a high school student and studying for my GCSEs. I appreciate it’s not as black and white as that. After all, there is a school of thought that argues mental illnesses aren’t on the increase, but are simply less taboo. My overall point, though, is that we are all in desperate need of a means of escaping the pressures we face everyday. Reading offers us that sweet relief.
- Books often have a diverse range of characters. Within the past twenty years, literature has seen a widening in the spectrum of characters in leading roles. Many books that I personally read have characters spanning a wide range of ages, races and species. This trend is mirrored in our everyday lives as well, though. We live in a world that is becoming more multi-cultural with each passing year. We have neighbors of different races, colleagues of different religions. Books teach us empathy and this empathy crosses the boundaries between fiction and real life and helps us to understand and befriend people of any race, gender, age or religion. In a world constantly at war with itself, this is more important than most people realize.
- Books can help us to cope with trauma in our lives. It was only just over fifty years ago that the publishing house, Penguin, was taken to court following their publication of an uncensored edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It was, at that time, seen as ‘obscene’, its exploration of things such as sexuality and class viewed as inappropriate reading material. Times have changed, though, and books – fiction in particular – now encompass a whole range of themes and its these themes that we find ourselves drawn to and can derive comfort from. It’s not always easy to talk about the things that are hurting us, but if a fictional character is experiencing something similar – perhaps the death of a much-loved family member, for example – we can seek solace in the knowledge that others have felt what we’ve felt and have survived, fictional or not. Furthermore, by seeing these turbulent emotions being so openly written about, we feel more normal in our feelings and this can encourage us to open up to our family and friends. We realize that it’s okay to be feeling how we are and that there’s no shame in it.
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below!