Read Books As One Would Breathe Air

This piece is a collaboration between Rachel Arone and Christine MacKenzie

Neither of us could agree more with Annie Dillard when she said, “She reads books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live.” From the fantastical worlds of The Lord of The Rings to the more familiar high school terrain of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, we explore the depths of our minds and struggles through the lens of fiction. We discover that we’re not alone in what we’re feeling and understand ourselves in a new light.

Through fiction we find worlds in which escape from everyday struggles becomes possible. For instance, if we are upset about a grade on an assignment or argument with a friend, our minds travel to a place where none of that matters, where we can process and deal with the issues at hand. Taking a moment to halt our anxiety or negative thoughts in their tracks, jumping into another reality, has been helpful in our experiences. The mental health benefits of escapism are practically infinite--not to mention the soothing music of the words.

An influential book that both of us have read is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. In particular, we discovered the value of being truthful and honest toward oneself. For instance, two women were at their happiest when they kissed, but both ended up marrying men. We were struck by the unpleasantness of living a life in contrast to our true selves, which is especially pertinent in college. We also discovered the link that binds us to all other people: how similar yet different we all are.

In stories where characters triumph over the impossible, we are better able to understand the value of unpleasant episodes of our lives. That misfortune can be an effective teacher, that we can grow into more than we were. It shows us that triumph is possible, that it’s never a straight line from point A to point B, but rather a series of ups and downs, a scribbled mess of events that lead somewhere completely different. And that our ideas and values change based on our experiences.

In my freshman year of high school, someone close to me died very suddenly and tragically.  I remember the months that followed as a dark and heavy time--many days of school missed, still so many reminders of him everywhere, and yet the necessity of moving on. During this time I found comfort in The Hobbit, a classic fantastical tale of elves and dragons and golden rings. But I wasn’t in it just for the high-fantasy excitement. Middle-earth was a place of turmoil, no doubt, but it was also a place of sanctuary, a place where things could be okay. I remember this specific instance where I was crying alone and couldn’t stop because I was so upset to live in a world that could be so harsh. But then I thought of a passage from The Hobbit, describing Elrond’s house. “Evil things did not come into that valley,” it said. I kept repeating that over and over again. I kept thinking of the concept that there was a place that was safe and happy, where bad things didn’t happen and that maybe one day I could find a place like that too.

While reading we have had the interesting sensation of transcending the notion of the singular self. What does that mean? Inside the narratives of books we become a completely different person for a brief moment in time, even more so when situations and characters with which we interact change. We’re able to see what they see, feel what they feel, and better understand how we and others are connected. All of time and space falls away in the wake of a new reality.

In the bleakest periods of my depression I found myself turning to fiction as a source of comfort. Within the pages of Harry Potter I sought refuge from a reality in which I no longer wanted to exist. Paralyzed by neverending circular thoughts while I rocked on the bedroom floor at night, I would pick up a book, read a few chapters, and wake up the next morning feeling better about myself. Reading was never just a distraction, however; it was a method of processing my feelings and connecting with characters in a safe space. No judgment, no sense of constraint. Whenever I had bad thoughts, I would open a book and promise myself that I had to finish that book before I made a decision.

In short, “The library is a hospital for the mind.” Don’t forget your daily dose of reading--its healing capacity is unmatched.