Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

bravery through bestsellers

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In a recent cultural comment in The New Yorker, South African-born social anthropologist and writer Ceridwen Dovey investigates whether reading can make us happier. She describes a session with a bibliotherapist who gives her reading prescriptions to help her cope with a fear of grief. Over the years that follow, Dovey reads the prescribed fiction and feels a sense of transcendence. “Reading fiction,” she writes, “makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself.”

This transcendence should come as no surprise to those of us who love reading. Reading has had a profound therapeutic effect on my life—and during one particularly dark period actually saved it.

Bibliotherapy is a not a new idea. After all, literature, in the immortal words of David Foster Wallace, makes us feel unalone. Literature not only allows us to have an out-of-body experience with another’s consciousness (an astonishing thing!), but it also bridges the distance between the self and the Universe.

Psychological identification with feelings, thoughts, and attitudes of others are some of the reasons why we read. Psychologists tell us we are happiest when we help other people, and reading about other people’s misfortunes goes a long way toward encouraging altruism. Furthermore, anthropologists have recognized for many years that storytelling is a form of social glue. Stories bring people together in groups and foster development of common values, around which social structures emerge.

But Dovey’s article also got me thinking about bestseller lists that routinely feature horror, sex, thrillers, and unashamed escapism. Escapist books make sense as pure entertainment: life is hard, life is boring, people like to relax.

But what to make of the horror, crime, and thriller genres that seem popular in perpetuity? Our fondness for these sorts of stories can’t be taken as a sign of the times, since ancient people clearly loved adventures, gore, and tragedies. The question then becomes: might there be biological reason for us to be drawn to dangerous books?

There is something called universal story, by that I mean character + conflict + escape (or not). When we read about how other people get out of dangerous situations, how they deal with, say, whales, sharks, or snakes, we learn survival tactics and become better equipped for survival ourselves. I exaggerate, of course, when I talk about predators. Not many of us are likely to face predators in real life, but there are many other dangers out there that we will, likely, face in our lifetime. Be that petty crime or abduction, death of a loved one or an earthquake, stories that show us how other people deal with such situations and overcome them teach us how we might do it ourselves. And the best part? We learn these things by flipping through pages, in the comfort of our armchairs or while sipping cool drinks at the beach.

We read to become biologically fit.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Irina Kovalyova

Irina Kovalyova has a Master’s degree in Chemistry from Brown University, a doctoral degree in Microbiology from Queen’s University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University. She has previously interned for NASA and worked for two years as a forensic analyst in New York City. She was born in Russia and currently lives in Vancouver.

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Go to Irina Kovalyova’s Author Page