By Francesca Lea
Photo Credit: @selfcarewall
Literature has often been associated with relaxation and self-care. A book taken on holiday, or a nursery rhyme read before bed, we’ve grown up with the familiar surroundings of books in our homes. Whether for decoration on our bookshelves or with edges showing their wear and tear, we associate books with comfort. They sit on shelves in peaceful libraries and are a site for exploration in the safety of a bookshop. Books come to represent moments in our lives, conversations and debates, guides to know how to read our lives and to inspire our futures.
It is therefore no surprise that 2021 saw a dramatic increase in book sales as the nation fell back in love with reading for pleasure, pausing reality to relieve stress. Perhaps due to our reduced time at home and the quickening pace of our lives, Publishers Weekly have forecast “unit sales in 2022 will fall below 2021 levels”. However, 2021’s increase in sales suggests that our priorities have altered: 2022 is still expected to exceed 2019 and possibly 2020 sales. Our eyes have now been opened to reading’s benefits.
During the pandemic, we prioritised wellness and fulfilment, a nation obsessed with banana bread and Joe Wicks. We learnt to exercise our minds as much as our bodies. Book Tok recommended the next popular read, and the BBC aired Behind the Covers. Reading became fashionable again.
Beyond a distraction, a cure to boredom, a desire to have new conversations, or an escape beyond Netflix, the act of reading became part of our new routine because of its function as therapy. The benefits have been long known with bibliotherapists, prescribers of books. Bibliotherapists don’t just prescribe self-help books however, fiction too. The reason behind this is the theory of the mind.
Fiction is useful to better understand yourself, but also to understand others around you, their emotions, and reactions. Shell shocked war veterans after WW1 were prescribed Jane Austen because of the reassured happy endings and the historical context never weighing down the romantic sentiments. Even Winston Churchill in 1943 while ill had his daughter read Pride and Prejudice.
Photo Credit: @Selfcarewall
However, it was not just the romantic plot of Austen’s novels that made them beneficial for rebuilding war torn soldiers. Austen’s novels grapple with financial instability, entrapment, and transformation. The stimulating social interactions of the characters help readers to see other perspectives in, and of, life. Stimulating and motivating, books in any form and medium can console and are known to improve brain cognition. The physical act of turning a page, and the smell of the paper, all add to this de-stressing exercise.
The pleasure we found in the internet’s growth and accessibility came at the expense of our attention being taken away from alternative outlets. The book industry has always had the reader’s experience at the centre, it has just been rediscovered. When at war with ourselves, books are a place of refuge.