When the pandemic hit us and forced us into social isolation a few months ago, it was both a blessing and a curse. I wouldn’t be able to see my friends face to face anymore, and, like the majority of people, I couldn’t get off social media in the first few weeks to “keep up to speed” with any new information that came out. After those first weeks, however, I came to realise that knowing how many new people got infected and cured affected me in no positive ways. My anxiety skyrocketed despite active cases steadily declining, and my mental health took a massive hit.
The blessing that came with the pandemic, after I decided not to use social media as much, was the incredible amount of time that I had on my hands. After contemplating for some time and watching a few videos on YouTube, I vowed to make a sort of New Mid-Year’s resolution. The first and most essential goal I had to achieve was to minimise my consumption of “information” obtained from Facebook. That meant logging off for most of the week. Once that goal resolved, my second one was to read more books. As a few of my friends know, I adore reading books and love getting lost in their different yet familiar universe. But unfortunately, in the past 3 years I haven’t read nearly as much as I should/could have due to exams and the new people I met in the two years of sixth form.
So, I took to Book Depository and ordered around 15 books. Now, you don’t need to go to my extent and spend nearly as much as I did on books, but I’m a semi-fast reader and owed it to myself that I needed to compensate for the 3 years I had barely even touched a book (that I wasn’t forced to study). I had decided to order mainly sci-fi and philosophical books, the latter being my first attempt at reading such books.
The reasons I went for these two genres was quite simple:
1) Fiction books help to transport people into a different universe or time, but there’s something about the sci-fi genre that makes it somewhat magnetic me. I was always interested in technology and the millions of possibilities of its adoption in the future, but there is always a certain wariness with this concept (with good reason). Reading certain sci-fi books, particularly those written in the 1900s (like Snow Crash and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? ) help me visualise the promises that future technology held, along with all of the scepticism and hope previous generations had regarding where such tech could be implemented;
2) I had opted to, for the first time in my life, buy some philosophical books in order to broaden my horizons and educate myself about the different philosophies. While it was somewhat hard to grasp what the authors were trying to get across, I eventually caught on and began understanding how authors use different circumstances that a character goes through in order to portray their philosophy. By recommendation of a friend, I had chosen books that were English translations of French and Russian literature, which was another step out of my comfort zone.
So, you might be thinking; why choose books? Why not check on what friends are doing on social media? You see, books help to transport me in a different world, one where all my personal problems take a hike and new, seemingly impossible tasks and problems enter my mind as I look at the world through the eyes of the main protagonist/s. And after finishing a book and reflecting about it for an hour or so, I turn back to my current problems and notice how small they actually were, how simple they are to solve when compared to a protagonist who has to solve his/her own problems with massive stakes on the line. While yes, I hardly doubt I would ever need to solve a murder before I die from terminal cancer (like Atticus Pünd in The Magpie Murders) or have to save the other protagonist from a floating city of rafts, boats and super yachts meshed together while wielding nothing but a sword and ionising machine gun (Hiro Protagonist in Snow Crash), but these characters help to see my own situations and relationships with a new light.
Additionally, reading is one of the few activities that I indulge in which I can enjoy at any time of day. Whether it’s at 9am in the morning or at 3am when I can’t sleep due to the stress of exams, I know that there would always be a book waiting for me to open up and pick up where I last left off. Whenever I was overwhelmed by stress, anxious about the uncertain future or feeling desperately desolate, there would always be a whodunit to solve by the side of a detective or a sci-fi with extravagant, sleek technologies.
Another reason as to why I adore reading is because it’s a personal form of meditation. Meditation – in its essence – is to sit down with minimal distractions and either focus on one particular thing, or on “nothingness” (whatever that is). Your mind will undoubtedly drift off by some thought or idea that you conjure up in your boredom, but once you catch yourself straying from focusing on that initial object/aspect, you go back to meditation. Since I live in a somewhat noisy house in which I share with four other people, distractions are inadvertently unavoidable. Some of which I can control – like my time spent on my phone or laptop – others, well, not so much. While some of the readers might not share a building with other people, there are distractions that you just can’t avoid.
Whenever I grab a book, however, whatever noise that is drilling into my ears gradually ebbs away, becoming distant and barely audible but still there, much like waves slowly tumbling over each other on a sandy bay; you start focusing on what’s going on in the book, and that is what I love so much about reading. It is a sort of forced meditation that nobody really forces upon you. (unless you’re in secondary studying quotes from Animal Farm and Macbeth. Animal Farm isn’t that bad a book, and I highly recommend you watch Macbeth on stage sometime. It’s useless reading a play when it was meant to be watched. In other words, I feel sorry for you, kid. The pain’ll pass soon enough).
Now to get into the scientifically proven section. The process of reading books (doesn’t matter what genre or type, as long as you’re enjoying what you’re reading) is known to be associated with structural brain development (“children who are better readers, and who perhaps read more than less skilled readers, exhibit different development trajectories in brain reading regions.” This could be due to the diminished volume of the parietal cortical and frontal regions, which were associated with better fluency and reading).
It is also believed to reduce stress levels by nearly 70% after reading for just 6 minutes, which I tend to have faith in since I have used books to escape from exam stress more times than I could possibly count.
Another study conducted in 2013 showed that there is a correlation between reading a fiction book and improved empathy, meaning you would understand people’s emotions significantly better, and would hence help you navigate the troubling waters that we call relationships.
And while yes, most people would prefer to just use a Kindle or pirate the book online for free, there has been a study that confirmed that readers find it harder to recall information when reading a mystery story on a Kindle, when compared to people that read from paperbacks. Another study that had slightly more participants confirmed that students who read from printed text scored higher on the reading comprehension test than others who read the test from a screen.
There are many more advantages to list with regards to the immense reservoirs of information you can discover within the books, the attachment you make with a certain book due to the stage you are currently in in your life, the benefits it brings for sleeping better and letting your imagination run wild(er), but I feel like I have rambled on for enough. That, and I need to reread Hitchhiker’s Guide. Yes, it’s that good.
List of books I read when self-isolating
Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson)
1984 (this is more dystopian fiction genre) (George Orwell)
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick)
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
The Stranger (Albert Camus)
Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
The House of the Dead/The Gambler (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
Magpie Murders (Anthony Horowitz)
Written by: Matthew J. Cassar