Words can transport us. If carefully chosen and skilfully crafted into sentences, words can take readers to another dimension, immersing us in a different reality. Words can change our mood, alter our thinking, offer a release from the everyday. Words have the power to make us feel better.
At a time when life’s inherent challenges are intensified, and many of the things we have long taken for granted are out of reach, stories can offer comfort, hope and a dose of mental respite.
The stories that move, console and delight each of us will vary. And our constantly shifting moods will dictate which book grabs us and which one fails to take hold at any given moment. It is our drifting disposition that guides which books we reach for in a library, bookshop or bookshelf, how many lines of a book's opening we read, and whether we let a story take us by the hand and lead us into places unknown.
I think of Swedish author, Linda Olsson’s Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs, a book bought for me many years ago by a very good friend who lives on the other side of the world. It starts: “There had been wind and drifting snow during her journey, but as darkness fell, the wind died and the snow settled. It was the first day of March. She had driven from Stockholm in the gradually deepening dusk that seamlessly became night. It had been a slow journey but it had given her time to think. Or to erase thoughts."
It is an opening paragraph that immediately immerses me in the unforgiving Swedish winter, and makes me curious about the protagonist and her apparent demons. It was a story that began with huge promise and didn’t disappoint.
Other books call on universal truths, appealing to the commonalities of human nature. John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley begins by raising a smile at the same time as provoking introspection, as the narrator talks about his innate restlessness : “When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job.”
Some stories hurl you straight into someone else's life, someone else’s drama, compelling you to continue on their journey with them. E.L. Doctorow’s heartbreaking Book of Daniel is one such book. It begins: "On Memorial Day in 1967 Daniel Lewin thumbed his way from New York to Worcester, Mass, in just under five hours. With him was his young wife, Phyllis, and their eight-month-old son, Paul, whom Daniel carried in a sling chair strapped to his shoulders like a pack. The day was hot and overcast with the threat of rain, and the early morning traffic was wondering - I mean the early morning traffic was light, but not many drivers could pass them without wondering who they were and where they were going.”
It can’t fail to ignite curiosity.
Life is about stories — our own and other people’s. Since time began people have told each other stories, passed stories on through generations, made up stories, and delighted in losing themselves in stories. These collections of words don’t just offer us escapism, they often teach us to better understand life, other people, and ourselves, and to find a way to navigate the madness.
Books are a wonder. They are also a constant in an often terrifying world. Pick up a book, read a page or two, or put reality on hold and devour the whole damn thing in one sitting. But try and make time to read. Books can be a saviour.