Photo: Elizabeth Weinberg, part of “All Summer in a Day” series.
By Amy Spies
Readers, you may relate to my addiction.
It happened to me long ago.
I didn’t mean to get hooked. I was just craving something to whisk me to another land, a better life, a fantastic world. No one told me that all these lines, my blissful escape, could become a lifelong habit.
I was so young and innocent. Six years old.
Perhaps you readers aren’t surprised — after all, it is the period when many of us succumb to this high. You, too, may very well have gotten hooked around that time. Perhaps you also remember that first flush of desperately rushing through all the lines, but also hoping they’d never end… and wanting more as soon as they did. Like me, you probably still have no desire to end this self-medication — binging on books with intoxicating writing such as this:
You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book… or you take a trip… and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating. The symptoms of hibernating are easily detectable: first, restlessness. The second symptom (when hibernating becomes dangerous and might degenerate into death): absence of pleasure. That is all. It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it… they picnic with their families… And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, a book, a song, and it awakens them…
— Anais Nin, The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934
Anais Nin called reading a ‘shock treatment’ to deal with what seems to be an ‘innocuous illness’ of disengagement and boredom. To me, this, well, reads like positive self-medication. In a Mindlab study at Sussex University, reading proved more effective than music or video games in lowering human physiological stress, specifically easing tensions in muscles and the heart. Cognitive neuropsychologist Dr. Davis Lewis, who oversaw the experiment, offered this explanation: “Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation… This is particularly poignant in uncertain economic times when we are all craving a certain amount of escapism… the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.”
Although I had inhaled lines (of words) about Dick and Jane, the first altered state of consciousness reading intoxication I strongly remember unfolded in second grade. My young teacher, Miss R., shut off the florescent lights, lowered the white screen, and projected a children’s story that scrolled down, kind of how a computer does now. I realized at that moment that I could actually, somehow miraculously, read continuously. It absorbed and thrilled me. How long could I keep going, I wondered. I forgot all else — the rows of desks in the classroom, the teacher, the earlier earthquake drill, and my deeper anxiety over problems at home became receding dots in the distance. I was in the moment and the story, flowing from word to word, line to line. As Dr. Lewis noted: “It really doesn’t matter what book you read: by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination.”
Way back when my self-dosing with literature began, I didn’t know where it would lead. I doggedly followed the trail of words to a room (AKA my School Library) with tall windows and wide shelves of stash. There was this nice woman who seemed to live her life out in this room. She called herself The Librarian, but she was My Pusher. She nudged me toward mind-expanding ups and downs. I began with one tiny line… then another. Soon, rows blurred together. I lost track of time, drifting into one fantasy after another. Outside, kids swung on monkey bars and got high on swings, but the library was my magical playground. Taped near the entrance was a long rectangular list of award-winning literary intoxicants for young readers. It was in actuality a tiny piece of paper, but it so dominated the room and my life. I didn’t know then that the prestigious John Newberry Medal, named after an eighteenth-century book dealer, was the first children’s book award in our world. I only knew that I wanted to conquer this list, to bury myself in it. To read and read and read.
I still remember those early highs — Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn, a fierce pioneer heroine who was so real and inspirational to me that I vowed to name my daughter Caddie, a promise that I even considered keeping as I named my first daughter. I was empowered by books about children who had survived challenges and thrived — Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain, orphans with resilience, Cornelia Meigs’ Invincible Louisa about the young Louisa May Alcott when she was a little woman herself. After luxuriating in the world of Little Women, I time-traveled through the Signature and Landmark biography series. Then, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time blew my mind before I ever heard about LSD.
As author/novelist Anna Quindlen wrote in How Reading Changed My Life, “Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.” They certainly defined home for me. Every few days, I walked as many books as I could to my house. The borrowed texts shakily towered over my head, but somehow their tottering presence comforted me. I closed the door to the room I shared with my sister, settled into my tattered reading armchair, and devoured every story with its highs and lows, tears and triumphs, non-stop until all the books were exhausted, scattered on the carpet around me.
In the background, muted as I read, actually muted because I read, my own family drama played out. My parents, Hollywood screenwriters, were separating, cue real tears and drama. Concurrently and not un-related, my sister, born 11 months before me with a brain too big for her skull, was crushed in a non-stop nightmare of not fitting in and being bullied. Add in having a younger sister (ME) who could do things like read way before her. Doctors doled my older sister Dexedrine to rev up, my parents Miltown to calm down.
And me? Deep in escape mode, I binged on my inebriant of choice – resilient lives riddled with obstacles ripe with happy endings – stories about children who survived and thrived. When real life got me down, I learned to construct a tower of literature around myself and then quickly break the barrier down and conquer it, word by word, book by book. In the process, stress got blocked out. Reading became my go-to gatekeeper. It protected me and presented me with a gift, another immersive present. As novelist Paul Auster wrote in Brooklyn Follies, “Reading was my escape and my comfort, my consolation, my stimulant of choice: reading for the pure pleasure of it, for the beautiful stillness that surrounds you when you hear an author’s words reverberating in your head.” Novelist Hector Tobar noted, in a Los Angeles Times article: “A good book is like good medicine… Why take a pill when you can pop open a metaphor? Why sit in line at your doctor’s office when you can be soothed by an uplifting story instead?” Mr. Tobar described studies from the UK which found that reading can benefit people’s emotional health; these results led the UK’s Society of Chief Librarians and the Reading Agency to create a Books on Prescriptionreading list for mental health including uplifting fiction, history and memoir.
During the months my parents were separated, I devoured many uplifting works of fiction, history, and memoir. Could I have overdosed on books? Was that even possible? Well, perhaps if they kept me from actually living my life. But early that summer, my father moved back in and I leaned back out toward the world, tentatively, peering through the kitchen door. The screen gave way, and I ended up with a partly shaved head and a forehead full of stitches. I remember feeling dejected in the body-filling way a child can. Summer had started and stopped, with a serious bang and a lot of whimpering. But then, along with bandages and aspirin, my self-medication rescue kit arrived — all the Nancy Drew mysteries, with their yellow and blue covers, so many lines to inhale. This literary amusement park spilled over the sides of my sickbed. I breathed in the words, Nancy and her cohorts became my friends, their fictional past mission became my present, and by the time the final The End appeared, my wounds and worries had healed. I was ready to embrace my next real moment. I retired The Nancy Drew series to the shelves above my desk and rushed outside to play.
In a fascinating New York Times piece titled Your Brain on Fiction, Annie Murphy Paul discusses two recent neuro-psychology studies that show “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.” One of the studies’ leaders, Dr. Keith Oakley, novelist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto and novelist, suggests that reading resembles meditating, a mindful type of self-healing. Instead of following your breath or absorbing compassion-inspiring words, readers ingest the lines of a book: “You… go lie on a couch… you put aside your own concerns and now you take on the concerns of Anna Karenina or… [you] start to experience what life was like from within a different mind,” and calm your own mind.
My shelves now overflow with my favorite “self-help” novelists who have been there for me through the years, helping me learn about the bigger world, expanding my empathy, stilling and thrilling my mind — Carson McCullers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alice Walker, Graham Greene, Colette. My tattered, but resilient childhood armchair now resides in my younger daughter’s room for her to curl up on and re-read Harry Potter for the 10th or maybe the 1000th time, when the world gets too loud or when she’s just craving the magical stuff. And I still, when I feel neither here nor there, self-medicate with literature, my anchoring present. Lorrie Moore, Edward St. Aubyn, Jhumpa Lahiri, Marcel Proust – I have a taste for them all. When I open a novel or an e-book, time still stops and lines flow, wiping away past-obsessed should have’s and future-fearing to-do’s. Reading remains my ever-lovely trip and loyal road back home to myself.