Nothing has the power to transport you to a different land like a book. A historical thriller can land you in a bustling 19th-century music hall; a poetic love story can take you on a journey to Chile, San Sebastián and Santorini in just one chapter, or introduce you to the type of character who you feel you know better than you know yourself by the final page. Stylist’s award-winning columnist and literature enthusiast Lucy Mangan muses on why books have the potential to inspire change, inspire thought and inspire imagination…
“I read about a hundred books a year – most for pleasure and some for work, although I usually enjoy the latter ones so much that the division tends to become meaningless somewhere around the 20th page. As a child, it was really all I did. School, meals, birthday parties, trips to the park – these were all unwanted and to my mind completely unwarranted interruptions to the vitally important business of reading.
I loved books then and I love them now. I wouldn’t exactly die without them, but I would be unutterably miserable. I would shrivel inside. My life as I know it and love it, would be over. Though on the plus side, I would at last be able to make a start on my untouched box set of The Killing.
A love of narrative is something we are born with. As soon as there was language, you can bet that there were tales told around the Paleolithic camp fire, and storytellers – of the oral or, in time, writing kind – have been esteemed and privileged throughout human history. From an extra handful of beans in your share of the medieval family stew through to the Booker Prize – it all stems from the same desire to reward those who can feed our deepest needs.
Why do we love stories so? Perhaps because they allow us to escape in a way that no other medium does. Reading is active, watching is passive. The written word is immersive, the screen affectless. The level of character and world-building detail in a novel surpasses anything ever captured on film or television. Books allow a level of escapism that nothing else quite permits. When I was young, I could be one of the Railway Children, a Treasure Seeker, a member of William Brown’s gang, one of the Famous Five or a boardingschool girl, and all before lunchtime, without leaving my bedroom.
Perhaps we love stories because fiction is a painless way of transmitting important knowledge and life lessons. Children will sit spellbound through a telling of Little Red Riding Hood imperilled by the Big, Bad Wolf, and absorb the eternal truth behind it a million times more effectively than they will any lectures, however impassioned, about ‘stranger danger’. Myths, legends, folklore and fairytales keep us safe.
But we also read, as author and screenwriter William Nicholson puts it, to know that we are not alone. Which is to say, we read for confirmation that others feel, think and act like we do – that our problems are not unique, that they can be understood and that our joys can be shared. We read Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë and know that women have been falling for unsuitable types and dealing with difficult mothers for centuries. It’s just that some of them got to do it in beautiful Georgian houses. We have the comfort of knowing that only the surface changes – people have been wrestling with the problems we think are particular to us since the dawn of time.
I realised it when I first read the section in Antonia Forest’s End Of Term where schoolgirl Lawrie mentally (and somewhat evilly) works out the ethics of ditching her netball match and stealing her twin sister’s part in the school play. It blew my tiny 11-year-old mind. People – presumably all people, because Lawrie was no prodigy (she wasn’t even that good at netball, TBH) – had complicated inner lives! They had bad thoughts as well as good! Just like me! It was as heartening a revelation as it was enlightening. The world looked different after that.
We also lessen our isolation in more tangible ways through books. We lend them to friends (and how much more meaningful that is than simply recommending a film or telling someone to catch up with a good series on iPlayer), we sing their praises on Twitter, we discuss them in groups especially convened for the purpose. Even now the greatest bond between my best friend and me – after our pre-pubescent love for Phillip Schofield – is our shared love of dystopian fiction. Or ‘plague books’ as we call them. We first realised how simpatico we were when we discovered we’d both checked A Parcel Of Patterns (take one 17th-century Derbyshire village, add buboes and romantic subplot and stand well back. It’s SO GOOD) out of the school library and felt – no, KNEW – it to be The Best Book Ever Written. I gave copies to other friends as presents for years after that. If they looked at me funny, I knew I not to bother with them again. Ditto The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall (Anne Brontë’s astonishing, timeless story of a woman escaping a terrible marriage) in my adult years. Above all, books are the stuff of inspiration. Jo’s literary endeavours in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women sowed a seed of belief in me that making a living by writing might be possible. Confessions Of A Failed Southern Lady by Florence King detailed and dissected (in a way that still makes me sick with laughter more than 20 years on) her schoolmates’ endless bitchery and strengthened my spirit when it was about to be broken by bullies at school Thousands of other books let me try out thousands of lives and attitudes in safety and helped me define who I am and who I am not. They have given me perspective, hope and confidence. They made me less afraid then and they buttress me still whenever I’m in danger of falling. I know The Killing’s good, but can it really do all that?