Stories are at the core of humanity. We tell them to each other, we pass on our histories, we tell ourselves narratives about our experiences and who we are, and we construct identities from the things we have been through. There are no truly unique stories left. There is just an arrangement of words, with a new voice – the unique way we write, speak, and communicate what is in our hearts and minds.
In these trying times, stories matter more than ever. Fiction always has the kernel of truth. Every book on my shelves has told me something true, about myself or about humanity in general – human nature, emotion, life, death, grief and joy. Books take you on a journey. The best ones change your life. Some even save you, when you need saving. They are dangerous because they encourage us to think for ourselves, to question, empathise with others. All things that we need right now.
Stories matter to me right now, more than ever, even in the depths of a reading slump. I’ve been struggling with this for a few months, ever since my Mum went into hospital, but possibly even before that. The frustration is that of course I know that reading will help, will help me to feel more positive and will bring joy in a time that is hard.
So I’ve moved back to basics, to short story collections. The art of the short story is zooming in to one particular occurrence, and yet they linger long after you finish reading. Shorter than that is poetry, the documenting of moments, of feeling, something more ephemeral, depending on how you choose to use the form. Some people tell whole stories with poetry, whilst others write of fleeting seconds.
It’s a true thing, that escapism matters. Whether through a novel or a TV series. Escapism is the balancing act between the ‘reality’ of life, and the fall into hopelessness. It rescues us when we need to be rescued from the harshness of what we see on the news, what is happening in the world political landscape, and the suffering around us.
It isn’t a leap into ignorance, instead it is an engagement with hope and empathy, the two essential ingredients for change – within ourselves and for wider society. We care about what happens to the characters in our favourite stories, and we are reminded of our similarities and differences, and how powerful it is when people triumph against great odds.
Perhaps more importantly, stories have the power to heal and bring people together, to educate and start conversations. They can be used for evil, but they are also used for some of the greatest good. Far from just being an escape into another world, another time, they intrinsically change us, and it is our choice whether to reach out and share what we learn.
‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.’ – James Baldwin.