Sometimes when the muse isn’t with me and wringing anything sensible from my frazzled brain is a real effort, I wonder why I’m doing this. Writing, I mean. Why do I write? Who is it for?
Jean Paul Sartre maintained that ‘Hell is other people’ and I have a certain sympathy with that sentiment, but if anyone were to ask me what form my particular hell would take, I would answer immediately, without any thought at all: Hell is having nothing to read. I would qualify this to include the inability to read.
If I couldn’t read, for whatever reason, I’d go nuts, simple as that; I may as well shoot myself.
I first discovered the joys of reading when my brother contracted polio in the 1950s. I spent many, many hours sitting in draughty hospital corridors (this was long before multiple visitors were allowed by the bedside) waiting for Mum and Dad. Books whiled away the time. I realise now that they were also my solace. I was too young to appreciate the full enormity of what was happening to my brother, I was just happy to have something to occupy myself with. I got used to waiting. These days I panic if I have to wait for a bus or an appointment and I haven’t got a book with me.
Game of Thrones writer George R R Martin said “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” Over the years reading has seen me through some turbulent times: serious illness (not mine), bereavement, divorce, change, work. Books have been my deliverance in stressful times; my salvation from a life I didn’t like but couldn’t disconnect from, or a situation I was thrust into and couldn’t avoid. When I didn’t want to face my own reality I escaped into someone else’s. Novels were a lifeline. They gave me permission to grieve, to worry on someone else’s behalf, to look forward to a pleasant end. In better times, I haven’t lost the reading habit. I’m never bored, and insomnia holds no fears now that I have my Kindle beside the bed.
But I’m frustrated: my go-to cure-all doesn’t always work. I’ve mentioned before that my live-in mother in law has Alzheimer’s and demands a lot of entertaining. She used to read but books no longer hold any appeal. As her condition worsens, her attention span diminishes. Whether I give her a newspaper, a magazine, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, she flicks through it in minutes and discards it. She can’t retain a plot or cast of characters so novels, or even short stories, are no good. But at least I can reintroduce her to the daily paper several times a day without an argument.
Reading is now used in a recognised therapy. I recently heard about Bibliotherapy which involves using an individual’s relationship with the content of books and poetry and other written words as therapy. The concept of the treatment is based on the human inclination to identify with others through their expressions in literature. Books introduce new perspectives and reading about other’s experiences can crystallise our own feelings and lead us to an understanding and appreciation of challenging problems.
So, if your life is unbearable for any reason at the moment, open a book and go live someone else’s for a while. I can think of no better therapy.