I read about a hundred books a year – mostly for my own pleasure but occasionally the odd few I feel I should read because society dictates it’s the done thing to have a Booker Prize on your nightstand. I usually end up enjoying the latter ones so much that the division tends to become a meaningless blur somewhere around the 30th page.
As a young child I was incredibly shy and softly spoken so being forced to read aloud in the classroom was my worst nightmare. When alone in my bedroom however, where I could take my time, reading was really all I did. School and meals times were. to my young mind, completely unwarranted interruptions to the vitally important business of reading. I was forever getting in trouble for hopping out of my Captains Bed to sit by the crack of my bedroom door straining my eyes to read “just one more page”.
I loved books then and I love them now. I wouldn’t exactly die without them, but I would be utterly miserable. As dramatic as it sounds, my life as I know it and love it would no longer be the same – though thinking about it, on the plus side, I would at last be able to crack on with my ever growing list of Netflix box sets.
A love of narrative is something we are born with. As soon as there was language, you can bet your bottom dollar that there were storytellers telling tales around the camp fires. But why do we love stories so? Perhaps it is because they allow us to escape in a way that no other medium ever really does. Reading is active, watching is passive. The written word is immersive, the screen affectless. The level of character and world-building detail in a novel surpasses anything ever captured on film or television. Books allow a level of escapism that nothing else quite permits. When I was young, I could imagine I was a member of the Famous Five gang going off on a picnic adventure or I could pretend to stuff raisins with sleeping pills alongside Danny the Champion of the World without even leaving my bedroom. Nothing else quite has the power to transport us to a different time quite like a good tale.
Perhaps we love stories because fiction is a painless way of transmitting important knowledge and life lessons. Tiny children will sit spellbound through the tale of Little Red Riding Hood imperiled by the Big Bad Wolf, and absorb the eternal truth behind it a million times more effectively than they will any lectures, however impassioned, about ‘stranger danger’. Myths, folklore and fairy tales help keep us safe.
As author and screenwriter William Nicholson puts it, “We read to know that we are not alone – we read for confirmation that others feel, think and act like we do too – that our problems are not unique, that they can be understood and that our joys can be shared. We read classics to gain comfort in knowing that only the surface changes – people have been wrestling with the problems we think are particular to us since the time began”.
We also lessen our isolation in more tangible ways through books. We lend them to friends (and how much more meaningful that is than simply recommending a film or telling someone to catch up with a good documentary on iPlayer), we sing their praises on Twitter, we discuss them in groups especially convened for such a purpose. Even now the greatest bond between one of my best friends and I is our shared love of tales revolving around real everyday lives. We first realised how simpatico we were when we discovered we were both huge fans of Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” and felt – no, knew – it to be the best narration ever to be written. I given copies as gifts to other friends for years since.
In just one chapter, you can be introduced to the type of character who you feel you know better than you know yourself by the final page. Thousands of stories over the years have allowed me try out thousands of lives and attitudes in safety and helped me define who I am and who I am not. They have given me perspective, hope and confidence. They have inspired change, thought and my imagination. They have made me less afraid in the past and they buttress me still whenever I’m in danger of falling. I know Breaking Bad is good, but can it really do all that?