I have a friend who no longer reads novels.
She used to, but that was before we knew each other. When we met, she had a pile of books stacked next to her coffee table, up to the height of my thigh. She’d read all of them, except the one on top, which she’d gotten partway through and stopped reading – not only it, but all fiction, altogether.
A few months back she did a spring clean and the books disappeared along with the expired cans of food, obsolete paperwork and an incredible array of shoes that were easy on the eye but extremely unkind on the feet.
Until that point, I don’t think I’d fully grasped the finality of my friend’s book-abandonment. Afterall, she has an extremely curious mind. She devours all sorts of news, reads blogs and listens to interesting podcasts. In sharing these interests, she invited me to engage with the world in new ways.
In my thinking, fiction is the natural complement to these sorts of brain foods – a staple for inquisitive minds.
So I assumed she was just taking a break from fiction, until the right book came along to lure her back. Not long after we met, I bought her one that I was sure would fit the bill. But she had no interest in even opening it.
To begin with I was baffled – not so much by the fact that she doesn’t read, but the fact that she used to, and chooses not to anymore.
Fiction isn’t for everyone. I get that. Some people never acquire a taste for it. What I couldn’t grasp was this: having experienced reading for the sheer bloody pleasure of it, why would you willingly choose a life of abstinence from fiction?
For me, reading is a treasured luxury. It’s a quiet place where I can relax. A busy place where I can be swept up in an adventure. It’s a thoughtful place where I can sharpen my brain on a mystery, and a world where I can suddenly split my sides laughing.
Reading fiction gives me the chance to indulge my soft-spot for written language. I love stumbling on new words that I have to look up. Or familiar words used in an unfamiliar way. And fiction is one of those rare places where I can fully savour the lusciousness of language – where it is pushed and played with and words are impelled to do things I never imagined they could.
Reading fiction also makes for excellent escapism.
While many people think of escapism as a form of denial – a childish way to avoid dealing with the difficulties and banalities of real life – I think it’s exactly the opposite.
When I bury myself in a book, I have no delusions that I can permanently evade my everyday problems by claiming citizenship in this alternative reality.
Instead, I see fiction as somewhere I can escape for a breather – to recharge before I plough on.
And a good book doesn’t just offer me a respite from the real. Experiencing the world through someone sort-of-like-me – as they save the universe, live an interesting life, or simply make mistakes that they survive and recover from – can help me look at things with fresh eyes, new values, even a sense of validation.
These are all tools I can bring back to the real world to help me navigate real life.
In my reckoning of the universe, fiction is an irresistible force that grabs hold of you and stamps you as its own, constantly finding new ways to seduce you.
But my friend had a different experience. For whatever reason, reading lost its appeal for her and it was a simple matter to shuck herself of the habit, without regret.
So a love affair with fiction can be like any mortal relationship, and the day may come when you’re not getting out as much as you put in?
I was still grappling with this idea when my children stopped reading, too. First my daughter, a bit over a year ago. Then, much more recently, my son.
Both of them had been voracious, genre-jumping readers since primary school.
Even after he metamorphosed from a human child into a gaming zombie, my son would regularly emerge from his fugue state to read.
He would eagerly await the release of certain new books and once they were in his clutches, he would beg to be allowed to stay awake just a little longer – to finish a paragraph, a chapter, a page – before he turned out his light.
And it wasn’t an insular relationship between him and the book. The next day, he would be keen to talk about the plot, the characters, the one-liners.
Sometimes weeks or months afterwards, a spark from a book he had read would receive oxygen from a current event and ignite into conversation.
From the time they were babies, I read to the kids every night before bed. As they grew older, the three of us happily wasted weekends together, lying on my bed as I read to them till my throat hurt. Then took a break and read some more.
Last year when I noticed my daughter had accumulated a pile of unread books, I asked her why she hadn’t opened any of the latest ones I’d bought her. She told me, “Reading is boring.”
I was dumfounded. What could possibly be boring about having your own personal portal to infinite alternative worlds? I tried to formulate this into a question that wouldn’t sound so accusatory.
Then, without looking up, she added, “None of my friends read.”
For her, this was the crux of it. In the school playground, where peer acceptance is pivotal, reading now smacks of uncool.
My daughter’s friends are lovely. They would never give someone a hard time for reading. But for her, it wasn’t about being teased – it was about sharing hobbies and relating to each other. Having an ‘odd’ hobby would give her fewer ways to connect with her friends.
And these days, many kids do see reading as odd. A recent survey by the British National Literacy Trust found that nearly one in five kids would be embarrassed if their friends saw them reading a book.*
I know this is not much different to the way Dungeons and Dragons or chess players were marginalised back in my school days. Still, I can’t help thinking that reading should be exempt from this sort of nonsense. It should be a universal pastime. Beloved by all. And cherished by my kids in particular.
Clearly I have a vested interest. And my perspective may be somewhat skewed by nostalgia. Yet, I am convinced the act of reading fiction delivers brain and soul sustenance that twenty-first-century forms of literacy lack.
Much of the kids’ interaction with the world of thoughts and ideas now happens via the internet. This is, by and large, an engaging and empowering experience for them. The internet offers a wealth of scientific facts, humanitarian ideas, magical photos and funny skits that they want to share – in both the conversational and social media senses.
But their internet meanderings lack a narrative arc. There is no end to the journey, no pauses to reflect, just a continuous stream of information.
The net rarely requires them to engage deeply or at length. It leaves no question unanswered, no puzzle unsolved for them to ponder on.
And so, unlike fiction, it offers them no deep insights into themselves.
I know this is not the end of the world – it’s only the beginning of a new one. But I hope that in this new world of infinite information, they’ll carve their own spaces to dream.
This post was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s lecture: “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming” (14 October 2013).
* National Literacy Trust report quoted in an article on The Telegraph UK website.