Losing yourself in a book. We’ve all done it. Entering the world, becoming the character, forgetting yourself. It’s a wonderful and sometimes overwhelming experience. After I finished reading all of GRR Martin’s Game of Thrones books I was so immersed in Westeros and its characters that I struggled with everything that wasn’t it – including other fiction – for six months. Other worlds and fandoms are equally absorbing, from Middle Earth to Hogwarts. Luckily I have work and family responsibilities to stop me completely disappearing down a literary rabbit hole, but what if I didn’t?
It’s too easy to walk into the pathless woods of fiction and keep walking, keep discovering, from Kipling to Buchan to Jules Verne, or from James Baldwin to Zora Neale Hurston to Richard Wright. You could just go on and on, until you are totally lost. In this blog I’m considering whether there is such a thing as too much reading, and if so what is a sensible reading-life balance. I know there will be a lot of opinions on this but it will be fun to explore the issue. Here goes!
There is a trend in modern fiction to have a bookish (reader or writer) hero or heroine. It’s a cheap shot really, a way to help the reader connect with the character quickly and at a surface level assume all sorts of positive qualities that the reader also subjectively attributes to themselves.
The more thoughtful writer puts fiction in its place, even while writing fiction that they hope will be widely read. Two examples spring to mind from recent reading. Firstly, an interesting example in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The role of literary Bennet sister falls to Mary, who is essentially a figure of fun. She is judgemental, contrary, unsympathetic and moralising. While older sisters Lizzie and Jane are intelligent, thoughtful and circumspect, and younger sisters Kitty and Lydia are giddy and heedless, Mary spends much of her time with her head in a book. Many of the most frequently, and earnestly, quoted lines in Pride and Prejudice are actually meant to be ironic and issue from Mary’s mouth.
"Pride," observed Mary, who piqued herself upon the solidity of her reflections, "is a very common failing, I believe. By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed.” … and … “Far be it from me, my dear sister, to depreciate such pleasures. They would doubtless be congenial with the generality of female minds. But I confess they would have no charms for me. I should infinitely prefer a book.''
The second example is more fleeting. In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the heroine of the story is taking a train from Moscow to St Petersburg and pulls out an English novel.
“Anna read and understood, but it was distasteful to her to read, that is, to follow the reflection of other people's lives. She had too great a desire to live herself. If she read that the heroine of the novel was nursing a sick man, she longed to move with noiseless steps about the room of a sick man; if she read of a Member of Parliament making a speech, she longed to be delivering the speech; if she read of how Lady Mary had ridden after the hounds, and had provoked her sister-in-law, and had surprised everyone by her boldness, she too wished to be doing the same.” (Part 1, Chapter 29).
So Mary spends all her time with her head in a book and not enough time engaging with life, and Anna is frustrated by potential lives she could be living, and not satisfied with reading about them. Some of Mary’s issues may be a defence mechanism against the world, but the point remains that too much time spent reading has not done her character, or her ability to understand and interact with other people any favours. For Anna reading about other people and other lives only serves as a catalyst to make her dissatisfied with her own life.
But what about us? Why do we read? I think it broadly falls into one of three reasons, though more than one of these three may apply at any one time. The three are:
The pure joy of a good story, a funny character, witty dialogue and an absorbing plot. This relates back to ancient traditions of story-telling around a fire, the pleasure of enjoyment of recounting or listening to a tale. This is a purely positive motivation and it’s hard to argue against, other than to say that even sunny days would become eventually become boring if it is all there ever was. The silence of snow and the drama of a good storm are both pleasures in themselves and good counterpoints to make us appreciate the sun more. Likewise a walk in the country, or a night out with friends are good counterpoints to reading, and help us appreciate it more.
Work is boring, life is stressful, you’ve got no money, you’re fed up with the weather, etc. What better way to escape the drudgery and mundanity than by escaping into a book? Again, it is hard to argue against escape as a reason for reading other than to say that maybe one should be meeting those issues head on and trying to resolve them? Or if they can’t be resolved then to change one’s attitude towards them.
To try to understand life and people better, to learn about a different period in history, a different culture or a different place in the world, to understand what it is like to be a refugee or to live with a terminal disease. All these are valid and worthy reasons to read. But all that understanding would be pointless if we then try to avoid people and do not engage with life. Pure knowledge is good, but applied knowledge beats it every time.
This is a simple assessment and life is complicated. Who is to say what’s best?
There is an popular philosophical standpoint that says that everything that happens to us happens in our heads, via our individual perceptions of the world, in which case a reading life is as good as any life. But there is also an argument that says life is all about experience, and the best thing you can do is to get out there and physically enjoy it – drink the cocktail, run the race, dive into the pool, socialise with your mates, run through the fields, smile at strangers, soak up the sun and smell the coffee.
Whilst I agree with the first idea, I fully espouse the second one. Reading need not get in the way of life though, and in fact reading can be the catalyst to further life experiences. After reading Raynor Wynn’s The Salt Path I am making plans to walk parts of the South West Coastal path with a friend. And Robert Macfarlane’s work has got me learning the names of trees and wildlife so I can identify them whilst out walking.
Particularly in our modern social media world, cultural bubbles could lead you to believe that you should be out there living life to the max, partying like it’s 1999 and bungee-jumping off bridges, or could lead you to believe that there is too little time, too many books and no time to do anything but read. Neither is correct.
So moderation, or perhaps balance, is everything. However much you get out and live life, reading still represents a joy, a refuge from the world, and a moment of peace, introspection, self-understanding and mindfulness. However much you read, it is healthy to engage with real life and real people. Books help you understand the world but you need to engage with the world to apply that understanding.
Reading might not provide you with a route map to navigate life’s trials, but perhaps it does equip you with some sort of inner compass.