I don’t remember not being able to read, and so I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love fiction. My brother was the one with his nose in a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, but for me the joy of reading lay in being able to enter another world, another peson’s life, struggles, adventures and imaginings. I read in the car, whilst walking places, as well as in my room, my treehouse and under my desk at school, until I would get spotted! I remember that feeling of being so absorbed- totally and utterly in someone else’s life-that the pages of the book ceased to exist, and if someone tried to get me to stop reading, it was like pulling my head from out of another world, literally having to focus back in on the people and life around me which had been continuing whilst I read, the characters continuing to dwell in my head during the interlude.
Such is the beauty and power of words, that these little symbols on paper can convey such meaning, evoke scenes of wonder and mystery, suspense, action, realistic and humorous exchanges. Like money is just paper and metal until a value is ascribed, words in themselves are just small marks on a page. Show them to someone who speaks a different language and they can have absolutely no meaning to them. Yet then can absorb, transfix and surround us to embrace us into another place when we can see the value they hold within them.
The ability of words to do these things presented a great attraction to me particularly as a child- that I could live a life I would never get a chance to live, through a book and reading a series of letters on a page. I could easily transported to a different country, make-believe or real, historical or futuristic, simply through that escape hatch of the book, as if through the back of a magical wardrobe. Tasting different cultures, smelling different smells and experiencing a way of life now gone just through black and white dashes and curls. As someone who struggles with understanding and remembering the bare facts of history, I was able to understand and empathise with fictional characters who were set in a real life event or historical moment, broadening my education. I could see times gone by, and now I am part of life in a modern generation in which paper is used less and less, handwriting is quite uncommon and reading is often done through a screen.
Since the advent of smart-phones and beautiful social media opportunities, particularly Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (and blogging) I have found that it is just as easy now, to access others people’s lives, real lives around the world, and to share a glimpse of what another place, another life is like. A little escape hatch on my phone, I can tap the icon and be transported across multiple countries, ways of life, views of life through little squares scrolling by. Often there is a plethora of beautiful images, of everyday life, which inspire me, thoughtful words about what someone is learning and simple joy filled moments spent with family. I can take a little pause from my everyday, to connect with someone else’s, in a quick and easy way.
The way the world is opening up in this way simultaneously delights me and fills me with a little regret. It is a wonder that we can connect, often in meaningful and enriching ways with others about the world. We can see real snapshots into real lives, encourage with our viewpoints, share and connect and broaden our horizons. Yet I am finding that increasingly I am getting that escape hatch, that stepping outside of my own four walls just for a few minutes, from social media and online reading rather than into fiction or real books.
I looked up some statistics to do with social media use and reading and I read a few interesting reports on the subject. They do indicate (some had a focus on ‘younger Americans’) that technology and social media use is prolific. A report by PEW research centre explains that ‘for the first time… roughly half of internet-using young adults ages 18-29 (53%) use Instagram. And half of all Instagram users (49%) use the site daily.‘ Although Pinterest seems to be at the same levels and daily Twitter use has decreased, Facebook use has increased, with more signing up in the past few years, and now ‘70% say they use Facebook daily (including 45% who do so several times a day), a significant increase from the 63% who visited daily in August 2013.’
It is clear that a lot of my generation, myself included, have a tendency to plug into others’ worlds through social media and the internet very frequently, and yet in the survey, less than half of young Americans read a book nearly every day. In a table surveying different entertainment and media activities, reading comes lowest on the list in each age bracket. I was encouraged that listening to music was the top activity, followed by socialising (which includes both in person and online.) This survey was done at the end of 2013, and even in the year or so since then, the internet, smartphones and technology have changed a lot. I imagine that the difference between the frequency of book reading compared with social media and technology use must be even greater now. I do think about the ways my children will want to spent their time as they grow up and into adulthood, and I really hope that they can weigh up the value of spending time in fictional worlds and virtual worlds.
My own analysis of how much social media and internet reading has affected my reading of fiction, black and white on paper (and occasionally on my Kindle) lead me to wonder if over the coming years there will be less fiction being read on average, because of an increased media usage. As a self-described bookworm, a fiction lover, someone who gets absorbed and stuck in books, finding minutes here and there wherever I can- I was shocked to take a step back and realise how little time I spend reading any more. There has been an inevitable shift after finishing my English Literature degree- I was required to read a book or two, a play and a bunch of poems a week- but I had, and still have such a lovely stack of books waiting for me to have the chance to prioritise them over my study. The truth – the sad truth- is my default has gone from reading in my free time to step across to another life, to switching on my phone or tablet and usually looking at others’ lives in social media form.
Whilst both fiction and social media do allow that magic door out of our own life into another, I personally find that I much more able to fully grow, flesh out thoughts and ideas and be challenged even by fiction. There is a part of that which occurs on social media, and on some blogs especially, but something about a sustained, fully fleshed out, book, is special. It’s something which I can hold and love and get transfixed in. Social media often provides a peek or a snapshot out of someone else’s window in life, but fiction allows me to climb over the windowsill, to touch the peeling paint, sink into the softening sofa next to flawed characters, and watch everything unfurl. A continued exploration of an idea, a character, maybe a place, represents so many different avenues of thought which could be pursued. After reading the same book, no two people have the same impression, thoughts and opinions about it, which is why things like book clubs and studying fiction can exist.
Yesterday we went to the little charity bookshop in our village- which I love. It reminds me of everything I love about reading, books, words, without being marketed at, since it’s a charity shop. It is not about money, or selling, or making you feel a certain way- just a room full of wonderful books to explore. There are neat shelves, with lines of books representing doors into thousands of worlds. Phoebe sat on a stool near the kids books, pretend-reading to herself, and Simeon stood up next to the shelves, pulling them onto the floor and flipping through pages. In an effort to both make more time for fiction, and to switch off more with a dedicated ‘rest’ activity, I bought two new fiction books. I got the joy of surveying the covers, admiring the artwork, reading the description and some opening pages, a little peek into the story which may unravel before me. Not all fiction is edifying- there has been ‘trashy’ fiction which I try to filter out when choosing what to read, and my degree has provided me with a kind of compass which helps me to seek out good reading rather than fluffy reading, and a way to squeeze even more meaning from books than might be noticed at first sight.
After realising the habits which have taken hold in my life, I am making a concerted effort to read more books, and more fiction, rather than ‘escaping’ momentarily into 100 different lives multiple times a day. I want to model to my children that there is value in words on pages, to show them my love of reading just like they can currently see me read the Bible in the morning, and the way I usually have my phone close to me. I love social media, and the ability it has to connect people all over the world, but I don’t want the significance of real books and reading fiction to lose their place in my life.
(Top image is a phone photo taken by the lovely Kate- you can see her photography on her Facebook page!)