[Originally published on May 24, 2011, this guest post should be required reading for everyone! Enjoy…]
[Reading educates, enlightens, entertains and even allows us to escape from or clarify personal problems. In today’s guest post, Camille Noe Pagán (The Art of Forgetting coming June 9, 2011) chronicles how reading also can be the ultimate lifesaver.
And, on that related note, please remember that from May 16th to June 1st, the author is donating $1 per pre-order of The Art of Forgetting to the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which provides resources and support to service members, including those who’ve suffered brain injuries.]
Reading Saves Lives
After I emailed Caroline Leavitt to tell her I loved her recent novel, Pictures of You, she mailed me a handmade bookplate. It was a photo of wings on the sidewalk in front of a brownstone. Beneath it, Caroline wrote:
“Camille, reading saves our life.”
Cute, I thought at the time.
But that saying burrowed under my skin like a tick; try as I might, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. While I was out jogging one day, I suddenly realized that Caroline was right. Reading had saved my life–more than a few times.
During my childhood, I followed in the footsteps of millions before me and escaped the misery and sadness of youth by losing myself in books. I became an Egyptologist while reading The Egypt Game; took on the White Witch alongside Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; and let the green world bring me alive like Mary and Colin in The Secret Garden.
In my twenties, after despairing of my instinct to flee a relationship that was so good for me I didn’t know how to handle it, I read Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love twice in a row, then went around recommending it like a door-to-door evangelist offering free copies of the Bible. (Spoiler alert: I married the good-for-me guy. Thank you, Mr. Baxter, for that nudge.)
While a friend of mine was dying from terminal cancer, I dove back into my favorite novel, Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, a story that illustrates, among other things, the way humans are interconnected with nature and every living thing. It was a sustaining thought in a time of internal chaos.
As a journalist (my other hat, when I’m not writing fiction), I cover health and wellness. I’ve written about depression and crisis more times than I can count, and the thing I hear from physicians and therapists time and time again is this: getting out of your own head can stop your negative, depressive thoughts and help you feel better. Our self-focus can drown us if we swim in it too long. But when we participate in activities that make us look outward–whether it’s exercising, volunteering, or being with friends–it breaks through those thoughts and offers perspective. Reading does this in the most primal way: it takes you out of your head and puts you in someone else’s.
The ability to leave my life and enter a fictional one—even for a few minutes—has kept me from sinking so many times (no surprise, writing fiction has a very similar effect). To me, at its core every novel is about redemption. When the characters we are reading about triumph, or even just survive, we cheer alongside them because it reinforces the idea that we, too, can survive and triumph.
A month or so ago, a woman emailed me. It turns out that she helped copyedit my novel, The Art of Forgetting, which is about how two friends’ relationship is forever changed after one of them suffers a brain injury. She told me that while she was working on Forgetting, someone close to her had suffered a serious head injury. Your novel was a great source of comfort to me during that time, she wrote. Thank you.
It was then I knew that writing the novel had been a worthwhile endeavor; I had finally paid forward what Barbara Kingsolver, Charles Baxter and countless other authors have done for me. I may not have literally saved that woman, but my book had been a lifeboat during her flood. I’ve had some lovely early reviews–and, of course, some less-than-lovely, too. None of those words, good or bad, have meant nearly as much to me as the email that said, Your book helped me.
Reading saves lives. If you don’t believe me, crack open a book the next time you feel yourself starting to sink.