The hardest part of going on holiday is choosing which books to take with you. A lightweight thriller or a serious nonfiction? An old favorite or the latest hot literary title?
(Of course, those who use ebook readers might say, "All of the above and more.")
Every decent-sized airport has a bookstore. Each summer brings about one of the biggest annual spikes for book sales. We even have a term, "beach read," to describe a certain kind of pageturner. What is it about books that makes them such important travel companions?
Partly, it's about escape. A book is a doorway to a self-contained world in which the reader is a spectator. On one level, our participation in that world is entirely passive -- we watch as things unfold, and nobody asks anything of us in order for things to happen. There are no phones to answer, no dishes to be done, no difficult questions to answer or things to feel guilty about related to these completed narratives.
And unlike in the real world, we can hear what people are actually thinking, discover what is happening concurrently in different places, leap instantly from one character to another, peer behind closed doors, all the while wrapped up in a narrative arc neater and more linear than our true, disparate and complicated existences. Sometimes, these stories end happily. Occasionally, even happily ever after.
And yet, in the case of the best books, what happens on the page is also so involving that it demands our emotional and intellectual attention as we try to interpret, predict, imagine, understand the meaning and consequences of each piece of information. They grab us by the throat, they make us reluctant to do anything but keep reading, to find the secrets hinted at, to witness the inevitable showdown.
Just as a vacation is intended to take our bodies out of their punishing routines to rest and rejuvenate, so books do the same for our minds. They relax us, engage us, transport us.
If stress is an accumlation of guilt, responsibility, expectation and fear, so a great book is an outpouring of baser, heartpounding emotions that dissipate the moment that you close its covers.
We read to be transported away from ourselves, just for a little while, and then return back to our lives richer for the experience. A great book is the very definition of a de-stress tool. It says, "Let me take you away from this for a while," and then, like a mystical masseuse for the mind, it does so.
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