Ed Dorrell’s article about the effect of closing playgrounds reminded me of the many Easter weekends when our family visited National Trust and English Heritage properties. In those surroundings, our children ran freely, played in the children’s areas and caught great green bush crickets, whilst their parents drank in the colourful borders and afternoon tea. Annual membership was a no-brainer.
I needed those excursions to stay sane between terms of increasing workload.
Today we live in claustrophobic times. I don’t deny it’s for the national good: the nightly statistics and steeply curved graphs on the news and the tours of intensive care units make for harrowing viewing. The coronavirus pandemic is a desperate situation.
But surviving this crisis is not just a matter of keeping our bodies healthy. The mind is important, as we know only too well. Britain has a crisis in mental health, too. Until now the great outdoors and physical exercise dominated the recipe for improved mental wellbeing.
Coronavirus: How reading boosts our mental wellbeing
Torn between apprehension about catching the disease, frustration at being confined and survivor (so far) guilt that we are called on to do nothing more than stay away from other people, we need to get out of ourselves, especially if we are to cope with the long haul that is in front of us.
It’s one very strong reason for using reading as a means of freeing the mind, allowing it to roam more widely than the state permits our bodies to do. It’s not quite as simple as the words Milton gives to Satan in Paradise Lost:
The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
We can’t simply will our thoughts to follow positive directions. The mind needs to be offered more alternatives than the four walls of our dwellings or the cyberspace where depression can increase, because amplifying distress and tragedy is unfortunately what social media does best.
Reading is a much more positive force than that. For so long in school we have been selling its many benefits, including these 10 reasons why we all benefit from fiction:
- Reading is an escape to a different setting. Teenage fantasy addicts constantly teleport into unknown terrain. Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth is wonderful for the variety of settings. The quests and escapes are more pleasurably active than the inertia of lockdown.
- For those of us who like the bigger picture, reading historical novels takes us into political struggles that are fortunately not our own. The past is a comforting country when you don’t have to inhabit it and you know what happened. My current excursion is into Thomas Cromwell’s final days in The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel.
- Reading aloud is a great shared pleasure. Anthony Horowitz's teenage spy hero Alex Rider was a great favourite at bedtime for the children. Each chapter was so perfectly shaped to introduce a more intense dilemma and end on either a cliff-hanger or a temporary respite.
- We understand different relationships better through the ways in which we see characters interact. Lyra outsmarts her opponents because Pullman has given her an analytical brain and a vivid imagination – as well as a hefty dose of luck. The machinations and double-cross of courtiers in Henry VIII’s court are superbly played out in Mantel’s vivid prose.
- Appreciation of narrative. Society has come to realise the value of narrative in depicting problems, serving them up as courageous struggles in times when they feel like distant defeats. Commercial companies and managerial layers within them have understood the power of a good narrative of triumph over disaster. Read any company’s annual report and you’ll see what I mean.
- The power of metaphor. The best stories have figurative and symbolic elements to them that tap into our subconscious, which is why Animal Farm is one of the most enduringly influential political texts. Becoming experienced readers and critics enables us to understand the ways in which metaphorical narratives work so that we can understand how public voices shape their figurative speeches, and thus resist easy compliance. Some public language needs to be questioned.
- When the mood all around us is dark we need lighter stories to ease our fears. It’s a time to lose ourselves in Pride and Prejudice rather than 1984.
- Reading improves literacy levels. There’s a lot to be gained by creating or increasing the reading habit now to tide us over the limitations on our movements. The better children can master the mechanics of reading, the more enjoyable books become, especially as reading speed increases.
- Joy of a good books can be shared. I’m sure that reading groups still meet – online and maybe not as satisfactorily as they did in the physical world. But reading and discussion satisfy the social needs of readers, no matter how introverted they may be.
- Reading books gives us independence from our families, time to withdraw and recharge our emotional batteries.
We may be, in the words of Hamlet, bounded in a nutshell; but even if not kings of infinite space we can at least be temporary refugees in a fictional space. And that might just be enough to help us all through this hardest of times.
Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a secondary school in the South of England. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge)