During the uncertainty and struggles of 2020, as our lives have become more constrained, there has been a return to simpler pleasures. People I know are finding more time for the hobbies they enjoy – painting, music, games, puzzles and more. For me, 2020 has helped me rediscover my love of literature.
In recent years my reading habits had progressively drifted away from fiction and towards fact-based books. Books such as Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” and Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” have fed my curiosity and given me ideas I can apply. Reading stories someone has made up seemed like an indulgence I no longer had the time or the patience for. But in this strange, uncertain year fiction has found its way back to my bedside reading pile.
Recently I have read 3 excellent novels. “And Then” by Japanese writer Soseki Natsume is a search for identity and purpose in a rapidly changing Tokyo. “Boy Swallows Universe”, by Trent Dalton, relates a challenging and traumatic childhood in the outer suburbs of Brisbane. “A Gentleman in Moscow”, by Amor Towles, is the story of a Russian nobleman who loses his freedom in the wake of the revolution.
I enjoyed each of these, partly for the stories they tell, but even more so for the vividly drawn characters I came to know. Daisuke is a lost and lonely figure in “And Then”, and his efforts to find happiness only carry him further into the mire. Eli Bell inhabits a damaged and dangerous world in “Boy Swallows Universe”, yet he is somehow able to find the courage and hope to prevail. And Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, the most clearly rendered of all, overcomes his loss of privilege and promise in “A Gentleman in Moscow”, finding unexpected joys and new perspectives as time unfolds.
There are 3 main reasons I enjoy reading literature:
1. Literature forces us to slow down, as we absorb the words and their meaning. It’s so much quicker to watch TV or a movie, but neither has the depth of immersion that a good work of fiction provides. Reading a story in written form requires time, commitment, focus and patience. There’s a sense of accomplishment when we finally reach to the last page, paired with a sense of sadness that the experience has ended.
2. Literature provides a rare opportunity to contemplate life’s deepest and most important questions. The best books usually do not provide clear cut answers – rather they pose questions in interesting ways. The 3 novels I have spoken of encourage us to consider questions like: “What does it mean to be human?” “What is the nature of good and evil?” “How do we find our way when we become lost?” “How can we connect more fully with other human beings?”
3. Literature allows us to inhabit the lives of others, to see through their eyes, and to feel as they feel. There is evidence that reading fiction is an effective way to develop our social awareness and our empathy for others. (e.g. Kidd and Castano, 2013, and Bal and Veltkamp 2013) The caveat, according to some studies, is that the writing needs to be high quality. (Mills and Boon romance novels and superhero comics may not quite do the trick :)) Canadian psychologist Keith Oatley describes literature as a “flight simulator for life”, a chance to experience feelings and emotions safely in readiness for real-life situations.
I’m glad to have incorporated reading back into my life. If it’s been a while time since you lost yourself in the pages of a quality work of fiction you may want to give it a go. You’re very likely to enjoy it, and you’re bound to find something beneficial in the experience.
To finish, here are some words from the 3 books discussed:
According to his thinking, man was not born for a particular purpose. Quite the opposite: a purpose developed only with the birth of an individual. To objectively fabricate a purpose at the outset and to apply it to a human being was to rob him at birth of freedom of action.”Soseki Natsume – And Then
By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration—and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.”Amor Towles – A Gentleman in Moscow
True love like this asks lovers to cast aside what is meant to be and work with what is.”Trent Dalton – Boy Swallows Universe