Have a lover, have friends, read books. Montaigne was right about one thing | Germaine Leece | The Knowledge Dynasty

Have a lover, have friends, read books. Montaigne was right about one thing | Germaine Leece

We think we are escaping ourselves when we read literature, but we might be going deeper into our interior worlds through the therapy of reading.

The understanding that literature can comfort, console and heal has been around since the second millennium BC; it is no coincidence that Apollo was the god of medicine as well as poetry.

As a bibliotherapist, I’m interested in the therapeutic value stories have to offer us, particularly during times of stress. Here the intent around reading is different; the value of the story lies solely in our emotional response to it.



One of the greatest arguments for using literature as therapy was posited by the Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne, who believed there were three possible cures for loneliness: have a lover, have friends and read books. But he argued sexual pleasure is too fleeting and betrayal too common, and while friendship was better it always ended with death. Therefore, the only therapy that could endure through life was the companionship of literature.

Why were the ancient Greeks and Romans right to suppose literature heals the soul? Why did Montaigne trust we could endure loneliness through a lifelong relationship with books? Why, despite all the distractions of modern life, do books still get published and writers festival events get sold out? The answer lies in the power of stories.

Stories have been around since time began; they tell us what it is to be human, give us a context for the past and an insight towards the future. A narrators voice replaces our stressed, internal monologue and takes us out of our life and into the world of a story. Paradoxically, we think we are escaping ourselves but the best stories take us back deeper into our interior worlds. Freud, who believed the reading cure came before the talking cure, once wrote that wherever he went he discovered a poet had been there before. It is difficult to access emotional language and this is why we have writers. They remind us of the universality and timelessness of emotions, helping us better understand our own.

What stories have shaped you? It’s a question worth reflecting on, as this shaping is often subconscious. The act of making it conscious will allow your future reading to perhaps have a different intent; you will be reading your life from now on, allowing you to live it more fully and better understand it.

Recently, more studies are telling us what the ancient Greeks and Romans already knew: reading improves our mental health. In 2009, research out of the University of Sussex found reading could reduce stress levels by 68%, working better at calming nerves than listening to music, going for walks or having a cup of tea. Subjects only had to read silently for six minutes to slow down the heart rate and ease tension in muscles.

A 2013 study found reading literary fiction can help you become more empathetic, by giving you the experience of being emotionally transported to other places and relating to new characters. Other studies have shown reading can improve sleep quality and ease mild symptoms of depression and anxiety.

As a bibliotherapist, I am continually reminded that all forms of literature can help people in all sorts of ways. A person who is grieving may need a predictable plot and an ordered fictional world; a man searching for direction or coming to terms with retirement may need a novel that reflects and explores the transience of life; a mother of young children may reach for a novel that illustrates the arc of life and reminds her she is in just one albeit messy and tiring chapter for now.

Sometimes it is not the content of the stories themselves but just knowing you have control by choosing to read or listen that provides the calming effect. All stories offer a safe, contained world with a beginning, middle and end. We have the power of when to start or stop and choose how long we stay in this story’s world.

Time spent listening to authors talk about their work and their own understanding of the power of literature also allows us, as readers, to reflect on stories that have shaped us.

:Why do stories matter so terribly to us, that we will offer ourselves up to, and later be grateful for, an experience that we know is going to fill us with grief and despair?” questions Helen Garner in her latest collection, Everywhere I Look.

Robert Dessaix, in his memoir What Days Are For, explores narrative as an optimistic form: “Is that why I’m reading a novel in the first place? It’s not a Pollyanna-ish form, it’s not devoid of unravellings and pain, but it’s optimistic in the sense that you keep turning the pages, one after the other in the hope of something transforming happening. Isn’t that it? In the hope of a transforming answer to your particular questions.”

Both authors are exploring their identity as readers and the impact reading can have. The writers festival is more than an event celebrating authors; it also celebrates the power of literature and the power of you, the reader.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/24/have-a-lover-have-friends-read-books-said-montaigne-he-was-right-about-one-of-them

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Categories

Follow us on Twitter