Council member Anne Sebba reflects on reading for pleasure.
I fell asleep last night with a book in my hands. There were just 40 pages to go until the end but, after a long and tiring day, much as I was desperate to know who lived and who died, I just failed to make it to the finish. Luckily I woke at 5am, before the rest of the household, and raced to the end, sorry it was over but happy to have shared a few days of my life with those heroic yet flawed characters. It was the most gripping and poignant story I have read for ages and urge anyone looking for a beautifully written tale in an original voice, who wants to understand how the heart functions and learn something about twentieth century history along the way (that’s all of us, right?) to read Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novel, One night, Markovitch – although you have to get to the end of the book to find out why it is so named.
It’s hard to convey, in a black and white, matter-of-fact sentence why reading can bring such intense pleasure. Why getting immersed in a good book really does take you to other places, other times. Why, when you’re engrossed in a good book, you really can’t put it down. Like most things (playing an instrument, running or hiking) the more you do, the better you get and the more you like it but, unlike most things, you don’t need any training to start. Reading is not exactly therapy but reading about someone who has experienced the same pain, sorrow, jealousy, elation, fear as you may be experiencing is a wonderfully comforting feeling. We are not, after all, entirely alone in the world.
I realise how lucky I am to have a job (as a writer) where I have to read. But most of what I read for work is factual, has source notes and demands that I take notes as I read. It has its own delights of discovery of course but it simply isn’t the same pleasure as reading a novel. I cannot imagine a life where I don’t have several books on the go, some on my bedside table, one always in my bag (how often have I been stuck on a train or even in a broken lift?) and others in various places.
But mostly, when we try and tell others, especially children who haven’t yet caught the bug, about the delights of reading the phrases that creep in have an earnest ring to them: reading is good for you, reading will help you do well at school, etc. That may be true but now at last here is a report that tells you yes, people who read for pleasure do benefit from a huge range of wider outcomes including increased empathy, alleviation or reduction in the symptoms of depression and dementia, as well as an improved sense of wellbeing. People who read for pleasure also have a higher sense of social inclusion, a greater tolerance and awareness of other cultures and lifestyles, possess better communication skills and are better able to access information. But, above all, reading is a pleasure. So why deny yourself?
Go on, have fun – read a book. It’s ice cream for the soul.
About the author
Anne Sebba is a member of the SoA’s Council. She can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to write. After working with Reuters as a foreign correspondent she became a biographer, lecturer and journalist. She has written ten books, several short stories and introductions to reprinted novels. Her non-fiction focuses on the lives of women who enjoyed using power and influence in different ways, such as Mother Teresa and Wallis Simpson. She is currently writing about Paris from 1939-49 through women’s eyes. From 2012-2014 she was the Chair of the SoA’s Management Committee, during which time she was temporarily imprisoned (at her own request).