“When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind.” ― Michel de Montaigne
How do you cheer yourself up when you’re feeling lost, lonely or misunderstood? Read a book. What about when you’re feeling envious, betrayed or defeated? Read a book. Or when you’re feeling in love, self-assured or indestructible? Read a book.
In 2011, I was travelling in a crowded van with all my personal belongings, heading to northern Quebec while a Florence + the Machine cd played on repeat for nine hours. I was scared, anxious and excited for how the next five months would unfold.
As a twenty-something woman of colour who was about to live and work in an Indigenous community, I was facing a lot of unknowns. Would the students respect me? Would the elders talk to me? Would I make any friends? How lonely am I going to be? Was this a mistake?
I was moving away from all of my usual comforts. Friends. Family. Significant other. Starbucks. I was a city girl. So what the hell was I doing here?
When me (and the two other girls who were also irrational enough to accept this job) finally arrived to our lodging, we found another challenge: no internet service. When we double-checked with the owner of the apartment, he confirmed that it should be up and running in a month. I’m sure you can visualize my reaction.
Where did I find comfort?
In the midst of being totally out of my element, still figuring out my identity and wanting a piece of home with me — the books that I brought served as my comfort blanket for the entire time I worked in this remote town. And while I depended on them less and less as I made relationships with the community, I still relied on them to take me back home. For example, during that time I really loved Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story and Downtown Owl. I also brought with me Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers. There were tons more — my suitcase was very heavy — but I distinctly remember reading these particular ones in my room.
“When you start thinking about what your life was like 10 years ago — and not in general terms, but in highly specific detail — it’s disturbing to realize how certain elements of your being are completely dead. They die long before you do. It’s astonishing to consider all the things from your past that used to happen all the time but (a) never happen anymore, and (b) never even cross your mind. It’s almost like those things didn’t happen. Or maybe it seems like they just happened to someone else. To someone you don’t really know. To someone you just hung out with for one night, and now you can’t even remember her name.” ― Chuck Klosterman
With every sentence I consumed, I became more at peace with being 1300 kms away from everything I loved. I learned, and appreciated, the power of independence.
The thing about books is that it satisfies whatever emotions you’re currently feeling through undergoing a journey of the author’s own volition. You don’t have a choice. You’re trapped in their world. Whatever you now feel is what you the protagonist feels, not you as yourself.
And so, what I’m getting at, is rather simple. We need books. Not only for our self-care, but also to help us process all the emotional experiences that come with being alive. When all else fails, when the lights dim, when your loved ones leave — a book will always remain by your side.
Stop thinking of reading as some extracurricular activity. Or a burden that you must do after you get home from work.
Reading must, and always will, be a duty.
I don’t care that you’re no longer in school or that you have to read a lot for your day job. The metric for success in those situations is not the same as it is in the real world.
This deep reading — what I’m talking about here — is for your sanity.
It’s no longer just about self-education, but rather developing the skills to become a critical and insightful human being. It’s about the ability to recognize and process all of the experiences that life inevitably throws your way.
Reading is about developing emotional intelligence. Not achieving an ‘A’ on the final exam of your undergraduate sociology class.
I’ll leave you now with the following quote from James Baldwin, one of the most seminal American novelists and social critics in the 20th century, who has captured the spirit of reading with immeasurable honesty and clarity:
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
Once we begin to see the value of reading in this way, then we can truly understand why this is just as important as brushing our teeth, embracing our loved ones and all the other activities that we do on a daily basis that we consider crucial to a happy and healthy life.