I’ve always been obsessed with books, ever since I was a kid reading under the bedcovers by torchlight when I should’ve been asleep.
They’re an open door; an opportunity to step out of our own world and enter an entirely new one. They’re a chance for us to understand what it feels like to be someone else.
As Atticus Finch said in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”
Over the past few months of lockdown, stats show a huge spike in fiction-reading. This isn’t really surprising; immersing ourselves in books is a great way to distract us from a nightmarish reality. But I believe that fiction holds far more benefits than just pure escapism. Stories are comforting to us because they’re so familiar. We use them to make sense of life and feel connected to others. In this current climate of collective anxiety and fear, reading can hold real therapeutic value.
Since the beginning of time, we’ve communicated by telling stories. We’re drawn to them because we recognise their pattern. In fact, all stories have a similar structure, involving the main character undergoing some kind of psychological transformation.
As readers, we seek to identify with the protagonist right away; we are a silent passenger on their journey. We get unfiltered access to their innermost thoughts, which might sometimes affirm our own beliefs or, better still, challenge them. As they come up against the forces of antagonism, we have the vicarious thrill of witnessing their struggles without directly experiencing them.
Why is this so useful for us? Because it often echoes our own suffering—a current problem or a past issue. As we travel hand in hand with the protagonist, we realise that negative emotional states are universal truths and can, in fact, be overcome. Being with a character who is wading through similar heartbreak, fear, disillusion, or personal failing helps us to feel less alone.
I don’t know about you, but when I read a good book, I feel as if I’ve made new friends. No matter how isolated I am, books can be the most patient and wisest of counsellors.
As well as validating our own feelings, fiction also allows us to transcend our everyday lives. It takes us to places and situations we may never have imagined but, once encountered, will never forget. These can often be ugly places, but that’s okay, because exploring difficult ideas is a form of catharsis. In books we get to confront things that people usually avoid talking about, like violence, danger, and death. Even young adult fiction directly addresses heavy issues such as bullying and drug addiction, meaning teenagers are better able to recognise the tensions around them. Books that make us feel good don’t always need to be “feel-good” books. Their ability to console us far outweighs their ability to unsettle us.
Exploring repressed emotions through fiction is releasing because we know that eventually there will be some form of redemption. Unlike real life, stories offer an orderliness to disorder.
Against all odds, our protagonist is inevitably able to overcome their flaws, defeat their enemies, and lead us to safety. Even dystopian fiction offers us this unexpected solace. Our protagonists don’t always get what they want, but they do get what they need. In their journey, we learn the power of resilience and we regain control which, in turn, helps us to heal our own psychological scars.
Reading fiction stretches the mind in a way nothing else can—not even history, which tells us what did happen rather than what could happen. Stories exercise our increasingly under-used imaginations, which aren’t needed as much when we look at pictures on screens. The more fiction we read, the more we access a range of different perspectives and approaches to problem-solving. The result is a depth of emotional intelligence and empathy which can benefit pretty much every relationship we have—and that includes our relationship with ourselves.
It can be so easy to step back from being the central character of our own life and let the actions of others dictate our path. Often, when we think about our own issues, we fail to see ourselves as inspiring or brave. We’re too close to our obstacles to view them with the objective compassion we give to the characters we read about.
Instead, we spend our time wishing our problems had never happened, losing sight of the big picture. I’ve thought a lot recently about how important it is to be the protagonist of my own story. Because when we face our greatest fears, something quite magical starts to happen—we can start to change negative narratives into positive ones.
For me, stories are an incredibly powerful tool: helping us to articulate our own pain, contain it, and find a way to move past it. We can distance ourselves from our own circumstances and realise there’s more than one happy ending.
With fiction, no matter how desperate our situation, we can discover in ourselves a deep-down ability to cope.