These are strange, confusing, scary times. We’re being asked to change the way we live our lives, with no clear notion of when normality will return (if ever). Stories abound in the media, both mainstream and social, and it can be hard to separate myth from fact.
And it’s the ideal time to read a book.
That might sound flippant, but I believe reading can help us all, in many different ways
Escapism & distraction
There’s little we can do about the current situation, beyond following whatever those in charge are suggesting (or ordering). But that doesn’t stop us worrying. It’s natural, in any strange situation, to hunt for a solution, even when there is nothing within our own reach. And this can increase our anxiety—which leads to all sorts of health issues, both mental and physical.
So we need to step away. We need to let our minds escape from what we can’t control. We need entertainment.
Reading has a few advantages over other forms of entertainment. Reading a novel takes many hours, often over many sessions. And between these sessions, a good story will still be running through our minds—we’ll be anticipating the characters’ next moves, or trying to solve the plot’s mystery.
Reading isn’t a passive activity, at least not as far as the brain’s concerned. The logical parts of our mind deal with deciphering the words, of making sense of the text. And then these words stimulate our creative, imaginative minds. From a few sparse sentences, our imagination conjures up believable characters and settings. The mention of sounds and smells in a book can trigger those parts of the brain associated with hearing and smell.
Reading can give us a whole-mind work-out. This keeps us occupied, helps distract us from things we have no control over, and ultimately is beneficial for our mental health.
These are immediate benefits of reading. There are benefits from long-term reading, too.
Throughout history, stories have been used to educate. The tale of a successful hunt helps others develop and refine their own hunting skills. The sad story of a villager who ate the wrong kind of berry acts as a warning. The stories we read to our children help them make sense of the world.
Some of this instruction is practical—approach an animal you’re hunting from down-wind, be careful what kind of berries you eat, if you’re nasty to others they won’t be your friends—but stories also help us think. Characters face tough situations, and a well-written book will draw us into their internal dilemmas. As we read, a part of our mind is working out what we’d do in the same situation (or, more usually, what we’d like to do). As the character in the story uncovers more information, we adapt our thoughts, amending our personal solutions.
This make-believe decision making can help in real life. If we’re used to thinking things through, we’re less likely to panic. We know that we need to take a step back before we react.
It’s often said that to truly understand someone, you need to walk in their shoes—and stories are a powerful way of doing this. Vicariously, we can live through the pressures of a high-powered job, or the daily grind of raising a family on a meagre wage. We can experience being lost in an alien environment, or living amongst those different to ourselves, or coping in a world where our beliefs are not shared by the majority. We can get a glimmer of understanding into why someone may turn to crime, or shut themselves off emotionally from others, or desperately seek acceptance.
The empathy we can develop through reading can help is in real life. The better we understand how everyone sees the world through their own eyes, filtered through their personal experiences, the less likely we are to make snap judgements. And then we’re in the middle of confusing, worrying situations, the last thing we need is finger-pointing and rash decisions. When people are struggling, a little empathy can go a long way.
Reading is good for us. It gives us a break from our troubles, it exercises our minds, it helps us solve problems, and it develops our empathy. So stay safe, stay calm, and continue reading.