The C Word: The Power of Reading in Isolation – good to escape to, or not? (Plus really good books you need to get on the hype of, pronto)

by Maddie
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Another Wednesday = another blog post in The C Word series! Last week, I explored the impacts of the furloughing system on our mental well-being and compiled an investigation thanks to the generous support of lots of you sharing your own personal experiences of being furloughed over this tricky time. This week, I thought we’d keep things a little lighter by discussing the power (or problems) with turning to reading at this time.

Hello, and welcome to my library x

Reading is one of the very few activities we can turn to over this crazy period that’s essentially meant to be done in isolation. We’re inundated with ways we can connect with others over this challenging time: host a Netflix party, a virtual quiz, catch up over video call or phone loved ones. As wonderful as this is, often the pressure to keep connected brings with it a whole new issue we didn’t have before: if you’re not feeling up for socialising, there is literally no get out clause, because what kinda excuse do we have to not keep in touch when all we have to do at the moment is stay inside doing nowt?! So luckily, reading can be a real escape and something you can do on your ownio if all you’re fancying is some alone time. And to add to this, it’s one of the only activities where we aren’t constantly reminded that our lifestyles have done a 360 on us. Go for a walk? You’re constantly reminded you should be taking an hour or less and keeping a 2m distance, otherwise you’re endangering others around you. Play a virtual quiz with pals? You’re forever reminded that life isn’t the same as it was before. Get stuck in a good book? In theory, you should be lost in an imaginary world for a few hours; escapism at its finest.

However, is the power of reading at this lockdown time really helping us? Are there certain books we need to do an online haul for ASAP to get us through 2020, or should we avoid certain titles for our well-beings’ sakes? I put a call-out on social media to ask you for your opinion on reading over this isolatory period, and strangely enough, I got some big old mixed reviews. Peppered throughout this post, I’ll be sure to throw in a good book rec or two, so you can invest in the books you truly think will get you through lockdown sanely and positively. So, here goes – let The C Word blog post of the week commence!

The Rant

I’ve found myself, on the whole, really getting into reading over this crazy period. I’ve always been a mahoosive bookworm, and I’ve always been a big advocate for getting your nose stuck into a good book and away from the bright lights of screens for a good portion of your week. I’ve been getting through my 2020 reads at lightning speed at the moment, but interestingly, not all the books I’ve dived into have helped me escape lockdown and get into a more positive mind-set. In fact, some of them have deepened any kind of anxiety or overwhelm I’ve felt. Below, I’ve listed my reads for you – and have explained how they made me feel – so you can ascertain which may be worth your precious reading time, and which to avoid based on how you may be feeling given any of the rollercoaster of lockdown moods we all keep facing at the moment.

Currently reading:

How to Fail – by Elizabeth Day

Read: if extra time on your hands thanks to lockdown is making you have more thought space to criticise yourself
Leave it for another time: if you’re not in the mood for every aspect of your life to be analysed and you’re just looking for a bit of escapism

I’m only a mere 84 pages into Elizabeth Day’s part-memoir, part-self-help book that spun off from her hugely successful podcast, How to Fail, but I’m already feeling that her words are pepping me up and motivating me to try to focus on myself and my own growth more during this strange period where we have more time on our hands suddenly than ever before.

Day is a journalist and podcast host, and in her podcast of the same name has interviewed a host of celebrities about the lessons they’ve learned from failing at various aspects of life, because as Day herself says, to fail is to live ‘life to its fullest. We’re experiencing it in several dimensions, rather than simply contenting ourselves with the flatness of a single, consistent emotion.’ To learn how to fail and how to embrace failure ultimately leads us to learning how not to fear it, pushing ourselves through the things we were worried about failing to lead ourselves towards the successes we dream of. Day analyses every aspect of our lives, from how to fail at dating, to how to fail at your career, and it’s the stories of others she has interviewed that show the united wisdom in failing at things, and failing well and often.

Unfortunately, it often becomes hard to accept the failures Day explains that have occurred in her own life, because they do seem rather insignificant and spoken from a privileged, middle-class perspective, but she does acknowledge that she can only speak from her own experience, and uses others’ tales to make the book the well-rounded, beautifully packaged slice of inspiration it’s shaping up to be as I read.

Have previously read:

Girl, Woman, Other – by Bernadine Evaristo

Read: if you’re looking to immerse yourself in a beautiful story of triumph over escape, and be reminded by the harsh inequalities in British society to check your privilege and learn how to help
Leave it for another time: if the shitty state of the world is making you a little anxious, and you’re wanting to pretend we live in a world where we sing in the street and everything is perpetually wonderful

Bernadine Evaristo is a professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University in London, and I bloody well wish I’d gone to study Creative Writing there instead of Birmingham, because I am 1000% INSPIRED by her Booker Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other. This is the first time, I am sad to admit, I have encountered Evaristo’s writing, and I sure as hell will be purchasing more of her fiction soon.  

She alerts readers to the institutionalised difficult challenges facing the BAME community in Britain today, but does it in such a way to not angrily paint blame on certain individuals or institutions. She lets her characters speak for themselves, for all their multi-faceted positive attributes and negatives flaws, paints a wholly complex yet completely accessible depiction of society as it is now and has been before and you lose yourself in the beautiful minds of each of the twelve characters we follow.

There are many beautiful positive twists in the tales to take away from this beautiful novel, but it does face up to some very big, very difficult and complex issues ingrained within our society – so although this beautiful read helped me at this difficult time, I understand it may be a slightly heavy read for some of us. But I believe the humour, wit, beautiful narration and colour that lies behind each sentence is enough to bring light to the darkness – so this may be one for you to invest in, asap.

Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (and other lies) – by Scarlett Curtis et. al

Read: if you’re looking to swot up on what it means to be a feminist in 2020, what it means to FEEL and what it means to be seen
Leave it for another time: if you’re using lockdown as a chance to get super clued up on feminist academia – maybe find another book

When I began reading this collection of essays by famous females, compiled by the journalist, Scarlett Curtis, I didn’t know what to expect. As someone that obviously identifies as a feminist, although I feel I often don’t have the right ‘terminology’ or ‘academic experience’ to confidently speak up on my views, I was slightly intimidated by this tome of essays. I was worried it would be full of jargon I don’t understand, quoting from research and papers I haven’t read.

However, I was so surprised and so happy to read views from famous females who feel just like me: intimidated by feminism’s great importance, and tentatively dipping their toes into what it means, for them, to be a feminist in 2020. If you’re looking for reads on the famous academic thought on feminism, this may not be the book you’re looking for, but if you’re looking to FEEL and feel SEEN, dip into this book and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see many females you perhaps look up to feeling just the same as you. You’ll realise your – albeit perhaps lacking in academic thought – opinions are just as valid and are shared by many, many others.

An incredibly good introduction into feminism if you’re a young woman learning what it means to be a feminist in this world.

Normal People – by Sally Rooney

Read: if you’re looking for a beautifully complex story of love and growing up to escape into, or want to learn from a master in how to get your creative writing game on
Leave it for another time: if you’re looking for a happy clappy ending – you won’t get one here

Now, this book was my absolute favourite read of 2020 until Girl, Woman, Other pipped it to the post, but it’s still a very close second. I’ve heard a couple of people critique Rooney and her masterpiece (not 100% sure why) but on the whole, this insanely talented Irish writer has received nothing but praise for her work.

Sometimes you find a writer that just seems to GET you, get what you stand for, get how you’d want to write if you were even half as good as them, and Sally Rooney GETS me. Her prose is effortlessly beautiful, her characters distinct and alive, and don’t be put off by the lack of speech marks – if anything, they just help you lose yourself in this fictional world even more.

Following the lives of two young, romantic interests in Ireland, from high school, through to University and beyond, it’s a tale of the messy nature of love in the 21st century, and tackles some pretty dark topics, too. Soon to be a BBC 3 series, there’s not exactly a happy ending here, but it just all makes SENSE.

The Insecure Girl’s Handbook – by Olivia Purvis

Read: if you’re looking to hear the kind of pep talk your best pal would usually give you, followed by a hug, if we weren’t in lockdown
Leave it for another time: if you’re expecting to hear revelatory wisdom on how to get over your insecurities – it’s nothing new

Olivia Purvis is an incredible woman. She’s a university drop-out who desperately wanted to pursue a career in journalism, didn’t know how to without a degree and couldn’t get a look in into the elite industry, so started her own blog. A blog which has since shot her to fame, winning blog awards, being adored by many blog fans and now which has led her to creating an inspiring online space called The Insecure Girls Club (@theinsecuregirlsclub on Instagram) and in turn, a book of the same name. She’s a very honest blogger, and that’s something to be applauded in this filtered age, and she’s helping young girls realise that every single human on this planet experiences crippling insecurities from time to time, and that’s just fine.

This is an incredibly easy read, is shining with Purvis’ positive, witty personality, and is like a comforting chat with your best pal. Something to dip into time and again, when you need reassurance and a pat on the back.

I’ve got to say, which I hate to admit, though, that Liv’s words of wisdom are often chewed up clichés we always hear when we’re insecure about something and need to be pepped up, but that isn’t always a bad thing. Nothing revelatory, but they’re comforting words which still make us feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Daisy Jones & The Six – by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Read: if you’re looking to escape into the heady world of the 70’s with an imaginary yet feels-so-real-are-you-sure-they-aren’t-real rock band with the incredible Daisy Jones fronting it, ready to literally forget all your lockdown worries and stresses
Leave it for another time: if you give up easily once trying to get into a book. This one’s a grower and takes some getting used to.

This is one of my fave reads this year so far – which is surprising to say, because when I first opened the novel my first thought was ‘What the f***?!’. Following the fictional life of the band, Daisy Jones & The Six, from their heady fame in the 70’s to the catastrophic breaking up of the band later down the line, it’s written as a series of interviews that feature the band members decades on from their height of fame.

I thought the interview-style prose was incredibly gimmicky at first, thinking it was utterly ridiculous how Jenkins Reid was assuming we’d dive straight in, head first, into pretending we believed the band were real along with her, but I was wrong to chuckle at this artistic choice. Chapters in, and I was obsessed. The band were real in my head.

One of the best experiences of escapism I’ve had all year – it was wasted on me because I read this before lockdown, but I suggest you get on this book asap – and forget about all the crap going on in the world for a bit.

The Discomfort Zone – by Farrah Storr

Read: if you’re interested in journalism and want to find out how ex-editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan and new editor of Elle, Farrah Storr, utilises her discomfort zone to get her killer job roles
Leave it for another time: if you’re currently going through an anxious patch – her words ring of military order and can be a hard pill to swallow

As an aspiring journo myself, I am obsessed with finding any glimmers of advice that I can from others who’ve made it in the sparkly world of journalism. Perhaps I held this book in too high esteem, because Farrah Storr is my editorial obsession of the UK lifestyle journalism industry, and I almost crapped my pants when I ran into her back in 2019 whilst on an internship with Hearst Magazines in London. But for some reason, although this book is a very good read, it didn’t give me the life-affirming wisdom I was looking for.

Farrah is known for being a headstrong, cutthroat journalist and editor, and her bolshy, strong personality shone through in this book, and she makes a promising case for pushing yourself out of your discomfort zone to achieve things you never thought was possible, but I didn’t buy all of it. There have been many cases I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone to force myself to try and achieve, and when I’ve done that, I’ve felt more rewarded and proud of myself. However, Farrah claims this can be applied to absolutely any and every challenge you face, but this felt a little too far-fetched for me. What if you’re suffering from crippling anxiety? What if you’re not strong like cutthroat Farrah, and struggling with crippling shyness?

This book felt like a self-help guide for a certain personality, and not a tried-and-tested method that fits all, unfortunately. I read this at a time where I was feeling a little overwhelmed, and it just made me feel a little more anxious about my mind-set, instead of helping me out of that anxious fog. Maybe if I were to read it on a good spell, I’d feel different – I’d love to know your thoughts if you’ve read it – please let me know. All of this said, it’s definitely one to dive into at some point, because Farrah Storr does have some good things to say.

Notes on a Nervous Planet – by Matt Haig

Read: if you’re interested in learning how the overwhelm of social media affects the human psyche, which feels especially prevalent giving the current scaremongering going on due to the C word
Leave it for another time: if you’re feeling mentally not your best; I felt that this read just exacerbated how I already felt at the time and drew attention to my anxiety more so

One scroll down my Twitter feed, and it’s instantly clear that EVERYONE – and I mean, everyone – adores Matt Haig. The mental health writer and social media obsessive writes openly about his experiences with mental health, and this book is a dive into social media’s overwhelming effects on the human psyche.

This feels incredibly prevalent to this currently challenging time, so may be something to read if you feel up to it.

However, as is the way when I tend to be feeling anxious, for some reason reading a big, meaty novel about mental health when I feel low often just exacerbates any bad feelings. So this might be one to read when you’re feeling on top of lockdown, and not a million percent overwhelmed. Haig does write beautifully and eye-openingly, though.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – by Gail Honeyman

Read: if you want to escape into the unusual and challenging world of Eleanor Oliphant, feeling as she feels as you go through this rollercoaster of a novel
Leave it for another time: if you’re wanting a light, wholly positive read to cheer you up

I’m not going to give away much about this novel, because I feel you can’t without exposing essential arcs of the twisting, turning plot.

But this is a novel about Eleanor Oliphant, a uniquely childlike, simplistic adult who’s navigating adult life in a not-so-got-your-life-together way. As the plot unfolds, you find out revelations about Eleanor’s past, and you meet some adorable characters who help her along the way.

It’s a bit of a dark read, and gets quite heavy in parts, but Eleanor’s voice is narrated beautifully and you instantly get sucked into her world.

Still to read:

I have a few books left on my bookshelf I’m determined to get through over lockdown and these are: My Thoughts Exactly by Lily Allen; An American Marriage by Tayari Jones; Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth. Usually, I find myself gravitating to non-fiction and memoir a little more as an aspiring journalist who craves to find out more about the human experience, but over this crazy time, I’ve been finding myself leaning towards fiction more than ever, craving another world to escape to instead of constant reminders of how shitty the real world is. I think escapism is something we’re all craving at this time, but through the power of reading, is escapism possible for us at the moment? I asked some of you and you offered your thoughts.

The Other Story

I reached out, yet again to the most reputable of platforms, Instagram, to ask YOUR opinion on reading over lockdown. The books you’d recommend, whether you’re loving and loathing reading at this time, or whether reading isn’t the escapism we’re dreaming of. And, whilst I felt like I was the only person ever who hadn’t felt a therapeutic release from reading Matt Haig’s self-help books or tomes of a similar ilk, it was interesting to see that many of you actually felt very similarly to me when it comes to getting yourself into a place of escape through the power of words.

74% of you feel that reading is something you’ve turned to more recently to cope over this isolation period – which is good to see that this investigation is of some use to you, then. However, we had mixed bags on the front of whether reading is a good distraction for you at the moment, or if you find it hard to escape into a book over this challenging time. 63% of you found that you can escape into a good book, yet 37% of you have struggled to get lost in its pages. And finally, and most interestingly, and most similarly to my experience of reading at the moment, when you’re struggling with your well-being, 55% of you said that reading self-help books, books about mental health and other similar well-being-related topics actually do more harm than good for you, and they exacerbate the negative emotions you may be feeling, instead of making you feel better.  

I think the difficulty is, when we’re living in a world that has constant reminders of how shitty things are, whichever way you turn – from reminders on social media feeds, to news apps saturated with the C word and daily walks reminding you of this strange, new reality – all we want and need right now is a chance to escape. However, often confronting our difficult feelings is of important use to us, because by working through how we feel and realising others feel the same too is an important way to process our emotions. I think we’re currently stuck in a weird mental conundrum, where we on the one hand just want to escape from the world for the sake of our well-being, yet on the other we also need to be confronted with the reality of our new lifestyles to learn to process how we feel.

The Positivity Lens

Finally, we’ve reached The Positivity Lens. A chance to take the shite we may be feeling and turn it into something positive. Below I’ve listed some book recs from readers of this blog who kindly offered their recommendations to me on Instagram, so you can have a whole host of books to get your haul on to help you through this period. I’ve also listed below some techniques and things you can do whilst reading to keep you feeling positive about the power of words during this crazy time.

Reader recs:

“The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak. Currently reading, can’t put it down!”

@_ellelouise_


“Murakami’s Killing Commendatore is FAB”

@hannahgallooo

“I recently read Unnatural Causes which is a book on the career of a forensic pathologist – I find that reading more factual books [is] easier to focus on [as they include] things we can control and things that have been proven… [helping my mental health at this time]”

@emrharvey

“Everything I Know About Love, Circe and Home Fire!”

@kirsty_monday


“Where The Crawdads Sing!!! Goldfinch!!”

@ellieevans

“Harry Potter (great for escapism) – Becoming by Michelle Obama – Red, White and Royal Blue. Also, the entire ‘Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F***’ series is great for right now.”

@jessicacapper


“Eleanor Oliphant, The Art of Not Falling Apart and Everything I Know About Love”

@kamila_xo

“Jog On by Bella Mackie”

@katymichelmore

How to forget the craziness and get lost in a good book – when you’re struggling to

  • “Don’t have your phone with you when you’re reading, or turn it over and put it on silent!” (@bethg.t) – I like to personally throw my phone to the other side of the room when I’m reading, so nothing can break me readin’ spell
  • “I have all the Fearne Cotton books and they’re interactive, so good for dealing with your emotions” (@_ellelouise_) – interactive books are a good way to focus your energy on the book and forget the outside world
  • Reading List is an app that has changed my LIFE recently – you can list all your must-reads and satisfyingly create reading lists of your finished and to-start books.
  • I think depending on the mood you find yourself in each lockdown day, it might be good to dip into a fictional land when you want pure escapism, and read the self-help, face-up-to-your-emotions books when you’re feeling a little stronger. Other shorter, less heavy mediums such as blog posts and podcasts can be a good way to delve into those deeper topics, and perhaps you can save the pure, lovely escapism for your reads, for the time being. Trial it out, see what works for you – but most of all, the power of reading can be a power to utilise to get you through this challenging period.

Stay safe, stay well and stay positive. Get your reading hat on and get lost in the power of reading in isolation. I hope you enjoy it. x

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