We’ve had a wonderful Book Week at BHHS. In assembly this morning, Mrs Ashdown said that books can make us better people and I remembered a podcast I’d listened to which explored the restorative properties of literature: https://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2017/sep/26/can-books-and-poetry-make-you-happier-books-podcast. It came to the conclusion that, yes, poetry can make you happier and that we can learn life lesson even from gloomy Russian novels.
Canadian psychologist, Keith Oatley, researches the psychology of fiction. In his book, Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, he writes that fiction is a kind of simulation, ‘one that runs not on computers but on minds: a simulation of selves in their interactions with others in the social world…based in experience, and involving being able to think of possible futures.’ Many writers and readers would agree with this, that books are the best kinds of friends; they allow us to interact with others in the world, without doing any lasting damage.
But not everybody agrees that reading can make us behave better in real life. In her book, Empathy and the Novel, Suzanne Keen points out how hard it is to really prove such a hypothesis: ‘Books can’t make change by themselves – and not everyone feels certain that they ought to,’ she writes. ‘As any bookworm knows, readers can also seem antisocial and indolent. Novel reading is not a team sport.’ She argues that we should just enjoy the freedom from moral obligations that reading can give us and is clear about the personal health benefits of an immersive experience like reading, which “allows a refreshing escape from ordinary, everyday pressures.”
Even if you don’t agree that reading makes us treat others better, it is definitely a way of treating ourselves better. Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers, say researchers, sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers. ‘Fiction and poetry are medicines’ Jeanette Winterson wrote. ‘What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.’
We’ve certainly used reading to help others this week in that all the money we’ve raised will go to Afghan Connection – a charity which supports education in rural areas of Afghanistan, where girls in particular miss out. Thanks to the English department and to all our students and staff for their contributions.