Thoughts on Reading

This is in direct response to this post by Derek on his blog The Preamble of Thought. (Another newbie blogger. Go look!) Specifically, I really was struck by his comments on reading as escapism, since I view most of my own reading in that light.

I am, and always have been, a voracious reader. Over the past few years, my reading has shifted more and more heavily into the fantasy genre.

Wait! Before you eye roll, hear me out.

The main attractions of this genre for me are that 1) These books are almost always ridiculously long, and they come in series, so I know if I like it I have reading material I will enjoy for a while, and 2) done well, fantasy is completely immersive. You have to suspend all belief and let the story take you somewhere else. It is escapism at its highest.
Of course, reading fiction (non-fiction too, I suppose) can always be escapism, but I find that I don’t prefer to read fiction that is based in the real world or that is striving for realism, and the same goes for TV or movies. When I watch a movie or read a book, I am completely and totally emotionally invested. I am there. I am that character. I am feeling intense, sometimes overwhelming emotion.

Having birthed a child, any time a childbirth scene appears on TV or in a movie (why are they so graphic lately?) I squirm. My husband’s comments on my reaction indicate he thinks I must be remembering physical pain. I am, to some extent, but honestly, that isn’t what I remember or feel when I think of the birth of my son. I can barely remember the physical sensations of that event. What I do feel, even writing this paragraph, is an overwhelming rush of emotion, an intense flood of joy, relief, unbearable protectiveness and melancholy. It isn’t bad feelings, obviously, just overwhelming. I don’t want to feel that way without warning.

I really, really, don’t like Les Miserables. I’ve read both the abridged and unabridged versions, and I never want to think about that story again. Ditto The Good Earth. Or The Red Pony. Why in the world would I ever want to read something that reminds me of exactly what is awful and disheartening and hopeless about the human condition?

However, I can read about some really dark and disheartening and sad and intense things in fantasy. In fantasy, it is always so obvious that these things aren’t connected to you in the real world. As soon as you stop reading, there is no longer any conflict. There is no action you can take that would change any outcome in a fantasy novel, but I am always reminded reading fiction set in this world that there are real people similar to those characters somewhere. They have problems, they are dealing with life, they are making mistakes, they have their own triumphs.  

I’m doing all that too, and I don’t want theirs.

Why do you read?


  1. This is an interesting post. I wonder, though, if what you are describing is a sort of emotional distance. The fantasy genre might provide an emotional distance from which to view difficult moral dilemmas without being harmed by harshness of the literature.
    I still think that reading literature merely for escapist purposes is harmful for healthy mental development. While some forms of escapism may lend themselves to healthy retreat, it seems that most forms of escapism create alternative realities which provide a place to avoid, and possibly never face, the difficult realities needed to be faced in life.
    How would you respond to this criticism?

  2. I read anything that I consider gritty realism, but not necessarily violent. So for example I loved Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser or Frank Norris' McTeague. I don't read for escapism because I don't want to escape, but do read for knowledge, and craftsmanship of the written word, and to be enlightened. I will read biographies and autobiographies to find common ground, to see what people think we think about them, to see how they perceive themselves. I will read about people I like and people I don't necessarily like just to get some insights. Arhived on my Nook, you will find Pinheads and Patriots, My Horizontal Life,and My Lucky Life in and out of Show Business: A memoir. My nightstand holds books Patti Smith's Just Kids and Loving Frank. Yup, I am "all over the place" but that's how I think.

  3. Derek:
    Good point on the emotional distance- I really think that is a good explanation for why I choose what I read. Without the distance, some of the scenarios and dilemmas are too emotionally intense for me too seek them out as entertainment. I look at it in the same light as some people prefer more intense experiences, like sky diving, that others would never voluntarily seek out.
    I think that your criticism on using escapism involving alternative realities sounds harsh. In your original post, you indicate that the nature of literature is vicarious, but that escapism using literature is harmful to mental wellbeing. Where do you draw the line between a vicarious thrill and escapism?