It’s for reasons such as this giddying suspenseful moment that I’m so grateful that I’ve returned to reading, and not just of non-fiction books. There was a time there where I gave up on reading. My reality seemed so distorted that I felt that I could only deal with truth, and the kind of truths contained in the solid dependability of scientific facts. I could not abide by fakeness in any form- in people, in life and even imaginative fiction.
As a child brought up surrounded by books, (literally the filled floor to ceiling bookshelves went with us on all our various moves) and one who spent many hours under the blankets with a torch, unable to relinquish a good book to bed -time, the fact I could not read stands as a symptom of just how swamped my mind was in swirling currents of confusion. Perhaps part of my reason was that my genre of choice had always been murder mysteries and having experienced murder in my life, I could not read anything sharp and jarring and, essentially, so different to how it really was.
Perhaps it was the feeling that I was far too fragile, that I had already felt too much emotion and I didn’t have any spare for a book character. It seemed that it was only facts, real and true facts that would form the stepping- stones to carry me out of the swamp.
Later, it seemed that I was so full of the white noise of grief that any spare cognitive capacity that I had should be devoted to the pursuit of professional development, in my learning of how things were so that I could pass that on to my audience.
But I found that even in my rigid searching for truth and facts, I would be skimming the page, over the statistics and scientific findings and graphs, looking for anecdotes and first hand accounts and stories of real people in real lives. I noticed the same in lectures and conferences, whether it was me talking or someone else on stage, the audience would be lulled and half dulled by the appearance of statistics, graphs and facts, but the minute the words “When I was a student…. “ or “Three years ago…” or “A friend of mine…” were spoken, there was a straightening of spines, an opening of eyes, a leaning forward to listen.
For it is stories that capture us. As children, we would gather around my father and sit close to the fire and he would enthrall us with imaginative tales about characters that had experiences almost exactly, but not quite like, our own. His heroes and heroines were strange, but endearing beasts who succeeded despite the barriers to their happiness: unjust siblings, unfulfilled dreams, accidents, incidents or false friends. As he wove stories of everyday heroism, loss, courage and redemption, he fashioned for us the tools that we would need to fight the battles of childhood. In doing so, he not only imbued in us all a love of the imagination, of suspense and mystery and adventure but gave us an outlet to safely explore our own experiences as narrative and ultimately, hope.
I found myself using the same tool with my 4 year old daughter, when I was helpless to take the hurt away when her father had left. She’d chosen a book from the library herself, a rather dull picture book about catching buses and I took liberty of the fact she couldn’t yet read to tell my own tale. The girl in the book was sad because her father had just left her (by catching a bus, funnily enough). Malee lent forward and soaked in every word about how the sadness was real and hard to hide, but that her mummy loved her and her daddy loved her and it was okay for her to feel sad and happy and in the end, it would all be okay. ( Of course she threw me for a six at the end by saying “Again!”. )
Imagine my delight, then, when I found that there were scientific reasons to read (and enjoy) fiction that those who read develop more imagination (of course) but also more compassion, more empathy and more social skills. I could show you some graphs and facts, but I can feel your eyes glazing so I’ll just leave you with a link. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=in-the-minds-of-others
So, I can return to my fictional heroine when my baby next demands a feed and grit my teeth and read through squinted eyes her next foolish action, safe in the (scientifically backed!) knowledge that by reading, I am extending myself as a human being, surely a commendable pursuit.