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Aoife Martin: Forget Twitter doom-scrolling. Books help you escape the lockdown blues

Our columnist says she found it hard to read books last year when the world was falling apart, but 2021 has so far reminded her of her love of reading.

Aoife Martin

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

– Neil Gaiman

LIKE MANY PEOPLE, I’m finding this latest iteration of lockdown to be particularly tough. Truth be told, at times it’s been a bit of a struggle.

The new year brought with it a family bereavement, difficult at the best of times but even more so in the middle of a global pandemic. Like its predecessor, 2021 isn’t pulling its punches and has left me battered and bruised, nursing my grief and waiting for the pain to subside.

As I write this we have just emerged from an endless January into a bitterly cold February. As each day bleeds into the next, I am grown weary by the sameness of it all.

Is it mondaytuesdaywednesdaythursdayfridaysaturdaysunday? To which the only answer is “Yes, yes it is.” The one thing that has been sustaining me through all this, however, is reading. I have fallen back in love with books and reading.

Joy of reading

Last year I struggled to read, I couldn’t find the sustained concentration and commitment needed to read a novel.

It’s hard to read when the world seems to be falling apart around you. I lost count of the number of books I picked up and put back down again.

That’s not to say I didn’t read any books – I co-run a monthly online book club and read every one of the books we picked – but I didn’t read anywhere near the number of books that I normally would.

It left a gap in my life that I filled with mindless doom-scrolling on Twitter, reading news articles that just made me sadder about the state of the world and sleeping. Lots and lots of sleeping.

None of these are necessarily bad things, well maybe the Twitter thing. I just responded to what my body and my brain needed at the time. This time, however, I have found solace in books. I have been able to retreat from the world and escape into other worlds created for me by different writers.

One of the greatest gifts that you can give a child is a love of reading and one of the greatest phrases in the English language is “Once upon a time…” Those four words, pregnant with possibilities, have enthralled generations of children everywhere. Is that where the magic happens? Is that where those of us who go on to become readers get bitten by the bug?

I believe so but it’s more than just that. Reading has been a constant throughout my life and in my childhood, I read with abandon whatever came to hand. I read the alliteratively-titled Famous Five, Secret Seven, Five Find-Outers (all by Enid Blyton). I read The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. I read magazines (Smash Hits, Look-in) and comics (the Beano, the Dandy, Bullet, Judy, Bunty, my sister’s copies of Twinkle when there was nothing else to hand) and the backs of cereal boxes.

I read Around the World in 80 Days and War of the Worlds and Jane Eyre. I had nobody to guide me, no kindly librarian to curate what I read and guide me towards what I should be reading. Thank god for that.

When I was 12 or 13 my mother, who was a big Stephen King fan, turned me on to Salem’s Lot and, constant reader, I fell and I fell hard. I was hooked. Horror was where it was at and I read voraciously. Stephen King, James Herbert, Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker, Guy N Smith’s killer crab novels.

I scoured second-hand bookshops for horror titles, the more lurid their covers the better. But then other books began to grab my attention – science fiction, fantasy and crime (I once got in trouble at school for reading an Agatha Christie novel when we were given some free time to read. I guess Dame Agatha wasn’t considered appropriate literary fare.)

Walking in another person’s shoes

Why do we read? The easy and most obvious answer to that perennial question is that we read for pleasure. Reading takes us out of the often mundane world we inhabit and opens us up to new experiences, new lives, new cultures, new stories.

I often think we underestimate the power of a good story. But we also read to see reflections of ourselves on the page. This is why diversity in books is so important. People from diverse and minority backgrounds need to see themselves and their lives represented in the books they read.

Several of the books I’ve read this year have featured trans characters. One of them, Wonderland by Juno Dawson, is narrated by a teenage girl who happens to be trans, and yet her gender identity is treated so matter-of-factly.

I can only imagine how important a book like this would be to any trans teen who happened to pick it up. I’d like to think that that teenager would feel less lonely and recognise that they’re not alone and that there are other trans girls out there and that they can be and are heroines of novels.

It certainly would have blown my mind as a teen and maybe made it a bit easier to accept who I was in those often confusing and awkward years. It also seems ironic that the act of reading that, by its nature is a solitary act, can make one feel less alone.

In a recent Guardian article, former East 17 singer Tony Mortimer, at 50 years of age, described how, until lockdown hit, he had never read a full book.

Books are just pure escapism, aren’t they? The plot twists, the descriptions, the metaphors. It engages your imagination like no other medium! It makes your worries disappear!

And this, I think, hits the nail on the head. Escapism. Yes, there are other forms of escapism and each of them has their own merits and ways of speaking to our souls.

Lockdown and, indeed, life itself would be much more difficult without films and music and art but it’s books that I return to time and time again. The effort to reward ratio can’t be beaten.

When you watch a film or TV show made from a book you are watching someone else’s interpretation of what they have read. Well, a bunch of someone else’s. Before the cameras even roll and the director calls “Action!” decisions have been made about what to show you, decisions about what to cut from the book, about how the world described in the book will be built, about who the characters are and how to portray them.

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When you read a book, though, you make all of the decisions. You are the set decorator, the production designer, the special effects wizard and the casting director all in one.

You are only limited by your own imagination and that of the author. You are the director of the novel being screened across your imagination and that’s a kind of magic that only books can bring.

Books are a kind of magic, aren’t they?

Aoife Martin is a trans woman and activist. In her spare time she likes reading, going to the cinema and practicing card tricks.

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