Reading is the perfect escape from this life sentence

Books are a solace in these uncertain times, an enlightening, entertaining form ofself-medication. I prefer to binge on them than to watch a Netflix series in one go, writes Joyce Fegan.

I’VE been self-medicating for years — by reading. It began when I was small, as escapism, or entertainment, or to keep myself occupied. As the years passed, and the responsibilities of adulthood stacked up, I switched to a far less effective form of self-medication.

Most people call it bingeing. After an intense week at the office, you’d ready yourself on a Friday evening to binge. It might even roll out into the entire weekend. This bingeing started in earnest in the summer of 2014.

I blame Netflix. You no longer had to wait a week for the next episode of a hit TV series. Binge-watching.

The dictionary definition for ‘binge’ is doing something to excess and usually relates to food, drink, or shopping.

Everything was suddenly on demand. Waiting and anticipating were fast becoming foreign concepts, but, heaven knows, we needed escapism — life was speeding up at a ferocious rate. 3G became 4G and mobile phone companies were offering all-you-can-eat data bundles, so you didn’t even need to be in wifi anymore to watch videos on your phone.

WhatsApp became embedded in and central to our lives — entire weddings, family reunions, and holidays could be planned in a single chat. Parents would have school groups that pinged by the minute with idle chat.

Polite ‘thanks’ and ‘cheers’ and ‘perfect’ would flash up on their phones all day long. Housing estates, newer ones, would end up having groups, too, about potholes, speeding, and suspicious-looking white vans that never amounted to anything.

And all of this without mentioning social media feeds filled with unsolicited footage of a fatal bombing, picture perfect sepia-toned shots of strangers’ holidays or gym sessions.

And then there are the news apps, which chime with alerts of the latest tragedy or scandal. No wonder we’re bingeing. Someone needs to turn the dial down a notch, before we all combust from information overload.

So, after much of this information overload, division of attention, and bingeing, I returned in earnest to my earliest form of self-medication: Reading.

It wasn’t that I had stopped reading, I had just reduced it. I had no time. No, that’s a big fat lie. I was choosing to waste time on social media, listicles, and an awful lot of unsolicited content. I also had a Kindle. But I used it unwisely; I’d hear of a book and have to have it and, thanks to the two-step ‘Buy Now’ button on Amazon, I own a large library of unread virtual books, mostly non-fiction.

My self-medication had always been fiction. Some people say they feel intimidated by books and fiction and literary fiction, but it’s all just storytelling and we’ve been doing it since time immemorial. I have no time for exclusivity or snobbery, which creates barriers to what can be one of the most relaxing of pastimes.

If romance is your bag, embrace it wholeheartedly; if crime drags you into another world, go for it; and if wartime sagas set your heart racing, go all in.

A book is so much more than the €10 or €20 you spend on it. It’s really about the hours of time you’ll invest in reading it. Make sure it’s worth your time. I hear a lot of people saying, with a kind of shame, ‘oh, I just can’t get into it’, or ‘I just couldn’t finish it’. It’s a bit like a lover: If you’re not right together, part ways and find one that grips you, that’s worth your precious time.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is my current love affair. From page one, her storytelling grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and has not yet let me go. While a passenger in a car, I found myself cramming in a few pages, as the driver fuelled up the vehicle, WhatsApp going ignored.

I had forgotten that deeply felt sense of contentment of giving one thing my undivided attention. Bingeing is all well and good, but I can never honestly say I’ve missed a character from a TV series the way I slowly read the last few pages of a delicious novel, savouring every last word of its world, mourning its end, and imagining what happens to everyone later in life.

There’s all this research about how good books are for you. They’re great for your mental health, they reduce stress levels, increase relaxation, and reading may even ward off dementia. There has also been lots of research relating reading to the development of empathy.

All the data aside, is there anyone out there, self-proclaimed book worm or non-reader, who doesn’t have a first love? Mine was Echoes, by Maeve Binchy, or maybe To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

We read to lose ourselves and to find ourselves. Short sentences that come from nowhere capture a feeling you never even knew you had. Or that sentence expresses a thought or an observation you believed was particular to you. Suddenly you realise: “I’m not the only one who feels this way.” We get communion, connection, and catharsis, without ever having to reveal our pain or struggles to those around us. Books are a private therapy.

If you haven’t read in years, particularly if you haven’t read in years, if you live to the ripe old age of 90 and you read maybe one book every five or 10 years, how many books will you read between now and the end of your life? Six? Seven? Choose well. Be selective. Research, before you invest your time. Just take back your time from the Frankenstein-like beast that is your phone and social media. A book will never run out of battery, network, or disturb your train of thought with notifications of terrorist attacks.

If you don’t know where to start, there are two places. One is called The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies and the other is called The Poetry Pharmacy: Tried-and-True Prescriptions for the Heart, Mind and Soul.

Fine-tuning your taste is a game of trial and error, but one worth playing, if you find that gem of a story that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and serves as a balm for the soul in these busy, fraught, and uncertain times.

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