Reading as Medicine

Reading is an adventure, and adventures are about going places you’ve never been. This is both exciting and reassuring at the same time. Herein lies the magic of reading. Great books take us places where we wouldn’t venture on our own, and they do so from the safety of our immediate surrounds. But the deep sense of acceptance that reading can stir in us transcends this fact altogether.

A Hidden Door In a Blank Wall

This is strange if we reflect that reading at school is often experienced more like competitive sport and a deep source of anguish, particularly for unique readers and those who struggle. The pressure many young people feel at school when they first learn to read and then the drive to understand and interpret “correctly” what they’ve read can feel anything but reassuring. For these students, reading feels more like a weapon that is used against rather than for them. Even for those students who are capable readers but don’t enjoy it, reading becomes a mere tool to earn praise and good grades rather than a healing hidden door into themselves and the world at large.

“Books and stories are medicine, plaster casts for broken lives and hearts, slings for weakened spirits.”

Anne Lamott said this in her Letters To A Young Reader. She elaborates by saying she feels “rich and profoundly relieved” by authors who will share the honest truth about themselves.  All of it – the good, the bad and the ugly. In this way, we are reassured that we are not alone but connected to a greater ocean of humanity and common understanding.  Thus, reading becomes an “antidote to isolation” and a “portal to perspective.”

“Books are the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

I certainly found Kafka’s words here to be true when I was growing up in northern Alaska. We lived on 10 acres of scrub brush just south of the arctic tree line and 80 miles north of Fairbanks. For much of my childhood, I not only felt alone but was alone. There was a monotony to my life that enhanced my compulsion to boredom. Even though I had a younger brother, I had no neighbours and few friends due to family dysfunction and the vast distances to the nearest town. Consequently, reading became my closet companion and escape from restlessness, and I am fortunate that it did.

Yet, most people (young or not) have more social lives today that leave little room for reading. So, why is it still so important?

Because hard things happen. I always tell my clients: this is “earth school.” We’re here to learn and “carve our souls,” first and foremost. Nothing and nobody gets out of here unscathed. And this is the way we grow: through hardship and facing ourselves and our setbacks face on without turning away.

Reading helps us do this because it reminds us that we are perfect just the way we are: not despite our imperfections, heartaches, and struggles but actually because of them. Reading reminds us to value the journey of life not just the destination. We feel understood and accepted as we share in what feels like the great secrets and personal lives we experience in books. In fact, great authors show us –  through their own lives or their characters’ lives – that it is our imperfections and mistakes that are at the heart of our perfection. It is when our setbacks meet our courage that we “carve our bowls” and become truly happy. This is a true sense of acceptance that books can uniquely deliver.

Reading helps us make sense of life’s chaos.

When I was young, books were an anchor that kept my adolescent “boat” from drifting down the confusing stream of adulthood: even if I would have never admitted it at the time! I was able to explore adulthood on pages before I was able to experience it in real life. In this way, I gained maturity and understanding from the safety of my bedroom. But it was also much more than that for me. When I was 13, reading helped prepare me to deal with my parent’s break up and the drowning of a close friend. Reading still helps me recover my psychological equilibrium when I am struggling. Through the words of Steinbeck, for example, I am able to put my own difficulties into perspective as he reminds me that I am a part of something much bigger than my small self.

“Read yourself as fiction as well as fact.”

Jeanette Winterson encourages us to read in this way because it helps us explore who we want to become as much as who we think we are: with an open mind. Stories, like metaphors, are uniquely suited to bypass our resistant logical minds, especially when it comes to challenging our outdated beliefs about ourselves or others. This is why master storytellers are so influential. Through reading, we are able to explore identities that may be contrary to our family or cultural values. This process of exploration gives us a deeper sense of knowing of who we are and what we ourselves care about. It sharpens meaning in our lives and strengthens our inner compasses both of which increase well-being and achievement.

But the benefits of reading are even greater than this. The research shows that regular reading – regardless of genre – also reduces stress, alleviates depression, helps manage insomnia and lowers blood pressure and heart rate. And from my own experience, books, for me, have always been medicine.

I use them extensively in my well-being practice along with the art of expressive free writing. Because for me, if reading is our muse, then writing is our voice. I can usually guess within about five minutes of talking to people how much they have read throughout our lives, not only through their intellectual prowess, but also through an intangible inner sense of knowing of who they are and why they are here.

I encourage you to approach reading in this way and collect stories that you love.  Reading then becomes a powerful way to transform ourselves page by page, increasing our well-being all the way. The greatest gift we can give our children, starting at a young age, is to enjoy reading ourselves and then share that love openly with them.

Get in touch if you have have yet to experience reading and writing as crucibles in your own life or have lost it along the way. You won’t be sorry that you did.