Is Reading an Escape or an Entrance?
Don’t you dare disparage a favorite pastime of introverts – getting lost in books.
Some years ago in a marketing support group I led, a therapist commented that she thought reading for pleasure could be an addiction on a par with smoking cigarettes or out-of-control gambling. If I were a porcupine, all my quills would have stood straight up from the indignation I felt when I heard that. In her eyes, reading novels could have a detrimental impact on someone who read, read, read instead of, say, making beautiful meals for acquaintances or chitchatting with neighbors.
Almost always, reading is a solitary activity, and introverts famously enjoy spending time alone in their imagination or in the fictional world spun by an author. When I was a kid, I not only read books like crazy. I so much liked the experience of transferring the contents of a printed surface to my mind that I read every last word on the cereal boxes on our breakfast table – repeatedly. Someone more extroverted would probably have spent that time joking around or throwing Cheerios across the table at their siblings.
Because my father was big on home safety, every bedroom in our house had a flashlight in its night table, and I used mine to read under the covers after bedtime. I defied the rules the same way when I was home from school with measles, instructed to rest in a dark room to avoid damage to my eyes. Not long after my sickbed reading spree I literally went cross-eyed and became the first kid in my cohort to get glasses.
In junior high school, having a last name that started with “Y,” I sat in the back row, which made it easier to race through Gone With the Wind, open on my lap under the desk. I finished with Ashley, Melanie, Scarlett and Rhett in just four days, reading the book everywhere except on the school bus, where I would have become carsick. In high school I signed up for extracurricular learning programs that assigned existentialist works like Darkness at Noon, Steppenwolf, The Stranger and No Exit. I whizzed through those and even more books from the library after finishing my homework.
Was my reading a compulsion? I sure would have been unhappy if forced to go cold turkey on books. These days, I read 10 to 20 books a month. It’s so much a part of my identity that when a friend suggested my blood pressure might go down if I cut back on reading, I looked at him coldly. “I’d rather die,” I responded – and I meant it. I would put my affinity for reading in a category with someone who goes rock climbing every chance they have or sits down at the piano in every spare moment. It’s a positive thing, not a self-destructive craving.
Part of what the therapist meant, I suspect, is the element of escape in reading. Engrossed in a novel, you are more or less disengaged from the everyday world. You’re immersed in dramatic enactments evoked by words on a page. The fictional events you’re reading about can feel so real that you laugh, cry, fear and hope along with the characters in the story. Certainly this can provide comfort and relief if your usual reality is drab or distressing.
But happy people too enjoy being transported to other realities. So a dynamic of desperately blocking out the world can’t be intrinsic to reading. Also note that so-called pleasure reading can involve painful emotions as we empathize with people experiencing failure, loss or injustice. Does it make sense to label an activity a kind of drug when it makes you sadder or more frightened than otherwise?
While reading takes you away from “real life,” it also brings you into settings, challenges and situations that you might not otherwise have access to. I love it when a book envelops me in new social, cultural or geographical vistas. Reading Beryl Markham’s memoir West With the Night, for instance, had me encountering lions in the wild and experiencing the high-pressure tedium of flying an airplane solo across the Atlantic. And narrative writing can hit you with an impact you don’t get from facts alone. Despite the gobs I knew about the Holocaust, the novel The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas made me appreciate for the first time that for each individual murdered because of their ancestry, a complex and unique swirl of relationships and psyches was also tragically extinguished.
From where I sit, reading tends to expand people more than it tranquilizes them. For introverts, who may hang back from some of life’s most boisterous venues, vicarious access to other lives is especially precious. Without reading, we intimately know one life. With reading, we experience thousands.