“The magic of escapist fiction is that it can actually offer you a genuine escape from a bad place and, in the process of escaping, it can furnish you with armour, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better. It’s a real escape — and when you come back, you come back better armed than when you left.”
Neil Gaiman beautifully articulates the essence of why reading is such an indispensable pastime in those moments when reality lets us down.
Gaiman was referring to how his 97-year-old cousin, a Polish Holocaust survivor and teacher, had escaped into the world of books during the Nazi occupation. For her and the pupils she secretly read stories to, books, forbidden at the time, provided a soul-saving gateway into a place that for a few precious moments, freed their minds from the shackles of their daily existence.
Liberating the mind can be both a vital and yet seemingly impossible task in the worst moments of mental anguish. Depression, for instance, has the overwhelming capacity to trap people in a vicious cycle of interminable horror.
The question of whether books can provide relief in the context of mental health is one that’s usefully being explored in Future Learn’s latest course, Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing, a surprisingly rare offering that combines a traditionally academic field with the psychological element of the health sciences.
One of the questions posed in the opening survey for learners is that of why and where they read, “to pass the time” being one of the multiple choice answers.
It’s interesting to explore what is meant by this. The act of reading as means of passing the time sounds at first like a passive one, pursued for the sake of just getting through the day.
But for many people who suffer under the “daily rain” of depression, simply getting through the day can be a major victory.
Pause for thought
The social and psychological value of books isn’t a new idea. It was raised in Aristotle’s Poetics, where the concept of catharsis was explored in terms of the impact of tragedy to purge us of emotions, specifically pity and fear. The definition of catharsis is still debated but the essential idea of using the words of others to reveal something of ourselves to ourselves is one that has prevailed through the ages.
Jack Lankester, an English teacher for whom the sonnets of Philip Sidney provided a sense of fellowship and solace when he experienced heartbreak, describes the restorative power of poetry in a way that reflects this idea of a cathartic experience:
“I believed in my naivety that no one had ever been as heartbroken as I was. No one understood… When I started reading him, the penny dropped in that instant, I felt wildly less alone. And the fact that he had been writing these poems 500 years ago, really did make me realise that being heartbroken or sad or lost is in many ways inevitable. And it’s a part of the human condition.”
Far from being a passive experience then, reading poetry is a means by which we can intimately and consciously engage with the essence of what it means to be human. It’s a precious counterpoint to the modern day fixation on lives that ought to be in continual motion, racing from one day, one achievement, one love, one, one feeling, one thing, one experience to the next.
One of the poems I find myself going back to again and again for this very reason, and for its own wonderfully lyrical sake, is Dew Light, by WS Merwin:
Now in the blessed days of more and less
when the news about time is that each day
there is less of it I know none of that
as I walk out through the early garden
only the day and I are here with no
before or after and the dew looks up
without a number or a present age
As Stephen Fry, who also features in the Future Learn course, says: “There is so much nutrition inside the best poems.”