Books are an integral part of our political and emotional lives. Restriction from in-person events, theatres, movies, and galleries has pushed many to turn to the well-versed pages of books. We are often told books can’t change anything; yet, they can. They change how we see the world. They expose inequality, political discourse, climate justice and more.
Books play a quintessential role in every reader’s life by introducing them to worlds of imagination – providing escapism from the monotony of everyday life. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of literature and publishers have seen large rises in sales. When reading a book we become absorbed by the materiality of the pages in front of us, and become infatuated with the written words before us. Being able to completely dissolve within a story, and to forget about the troubles of reality is, in my opinion, magic.
People find comfort in certain books; reading habits and genre preferences can change during periods of stress. This helps to explain why much genre fiction has its roots in times of significant social, political or economic upheaval. Gothic literature is, in part, a British Protestant response to the French Revolution (1789-99). Books help develop a perspective on various issues ranging from the self to society. This enables us to understand societal problems as well as individual issues in a more comprehensive and holistic manner. In an internet savvy era, where everything is just a search away, the benefits that books give us remain unchanged.
Whether it is a valley of complex habitats crossed by elves, dwarves and hobbits, Westeros, or Hogwarts, our comfort reads are firmly rooted in their own universe. These worlds are so complex that they invite the reader to revisit them time and time again, in order to discover some new and fascinating detail which they had not seen before. Our comfort reads are touchstones that will never let us down and are constant in a chaotic world.
Reading is one of those everyday activities that we take for granted, but if you pause to consider what is actually happening to those words on a page, you will realise that this simple act is complex, even magical. When you read, you look at shapes on a page, variations of a small number of letters and lines, and it evokes visions and thoughts in your mind, transporting you from universe to universe.
Unlike visual entertainment (TV, theatre, film), reading requires another level of engagement from the consumer’s brain. It is a complex act, with several regions of the brain working together to create a world inside your head that can be as, if not more, rich in emotional texture than lived experience. Ask any avid reader and they will agree that reading the book is better than watching any movie adaptation.
Literature corrects our native inarticulacy. Often we feel lost for words; we can love someone’s slightly wild but sympathetic manner of writing. We struggle to verbalise our feelings; we may end up remarking: ‘that’s so nice’. Our feelings seem too complex, subtle, vague or elusive for us to spell out. The ideal writer hones in on a few striking things: the angle of the wing; the slow movement of the largest branch of a tree; the angle of the mouth while smiling. Simplification doesn’t betray the nuance of life; it renders life more visible.
Zadie Smith has been a vital literary voice since her first novel, White Teeth, became an instant bestseller and is a leading contemporary figure of literature, a shining light of creative writing across the pandemic, for me personally. Smith is a British author known for her treatment of race, religion, and cultural identity and for her novels’ eccentric characters, savvy humour, and snappy dialogue. Suffused with profound intimacy and tenderness in response to these extraordinary times, Intimations is a suggestive volume with a wide scope, in which Zadie Smith clears a generous space for thought, open enough for each reader to reflect on what has happened during the pandemic – and what should come next.
A piece published in March 2020, Hamnet is a novel by Maggie O’Farrell. It is a fictional account of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, who died at the age of 11 in 1596. Winning the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Fiction Prize at the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Awards, it is an exploration of marriage and grief written into the silent opacities of a life that is at once significant and profoundly obscure.
A Burning is a novel by Indian-born author Megha Majumdar, released in June 2020. Taut, propulsive and electrifying, from its opening lines to its astonishing finale, A Burning confronts issues of class, fate, prejudice and corruption with a Dickensian sense of injustice, and asks us to consider what it means to nurture big ambitions in a country hurtling towards political extremism. A Burning is a novel for our time and for all time.
Great writers build bridges to people we might otherwise have dismissed as unfeasibly strange or unsympathetic. They cut through to the common core of experience. By selection and emphasis, they reveal the important things we share; they show us where to look. Reading has at all times and in all ages been a source of knowledge, of happiness, of pleasure and even moral courage. In today’s world with so much more to know and to learn, and also the need for a conscious effort to conquer the divisive forces, the importance of reading has increased. In this age of digital access, isolation from in-person materiality, keeping the tradition of reading is a central part to keeping the creative mind alive into the future.