After receiving such a good response on my Of Writing and Depression post, I’ve been considering a follow-up on the other side of the coin, reading and depression. I am not sure how well this territory is explored or if there are any legitimate studies out there on the relationship of the two. Reading, in a sense, is even more widespread than writing, an even more primary activity and it has its own set of attitudes and assumptions to bear. It mostly has to do with the benefits of reading, for people never seem to consider that it may have neutral or harmful effects. In this post, I will try to explore these benefits in relation to depression and see if they are really what they seem to be.
“To spend too much time in studies is sloth” is the view of the man behind my inspiration for this blog, Mr.Francis Bacon. Among all the quotable quotes in this particular essay, Of Studies, this is the line I find most interesting for, in our championing of reading, we seem to forget that reading can also constitute laziness. Just as well as TV or video games or social media. And yet reading, because of the deceptively superior tag of human achievement that it bears, gets away with being considered something infinitely nobler to do than just about anything else. Even writers are made to forget that literature is something cyclical and not linear. They are told to read first in order to become writers and made to forget that without writing, there would never be reading in the first place.
If there was a hierarchy in culture, reading would be the unanimous winner of the golden cup. You may wield a brush like Monet or compose like Mozart but you are nothing if you are not a most excellent, “well-read” reader. When New Zealand was colonized, a number of indigenous Maoris were converted to Christianity. While some colonizers transcribed their language and even translated The Bible into it, every Maori home carried a copy of The Bible in English. Most could not read it, and yet they had listened to it being read so many times, they could say it by heart. This was considered a failure, because a language or a book could not be justifiably known if it were not read first hand. Thus, proving the point that reading is the definition of the utmost signifier of man’s achievement as an evolved species, one that is better than the rest, with unknown possibilities of growth.
With such high standards to live up to, reading is bound to cause some detrimental psychological effects. The first is to have fulfil the requirements of being “well-read”. There is no way one can define what this term means, why it was invented, what was its purpose. There is no knowing why such a tag is even necessary among literate people. There aren’t equivalent terms for the consumption of other arts, like “well-watched”, “well-heard”, “well-viewed”. “Well-written”, of course, means something entirely different. To put it simply, you can never measure “well-read” by any number, genre or medium of reading. A number of people who’ve asked me what I have been reading lately, have rolled their eyes when I said, “blogs”. You only have to look around this website to know that any number of blogs here could compete with bound, traditionally published material. The most well-read person, if the estimations from an episode of QI is to be believed, was a lady who read romance novels out of a library(hence, a record kept of her reading habits) for most of her life span. Would this be considered well-read or would reading only one book per year, but the likes of James Joyce’s Ulysses or Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, be considered well-read?
And what has this to do with depression? Well, simply having to live with that tag. Wanting it, keeping it, tricking others into believing it. The prolonged anxiety, the self-evaluation associated with reading, the immense guilt involved when not living up to the standards of being “well-read” that one or others have set for themselves. Someone I know likes to point out that they read more than I do. Why is this observation necessary? Because it is my professional requirement to be “well-read”, in mainly literary and academic books, while this specific person has more popular tastes. This difference in genre and background is considered irrelevant and by this specific observation I am being asked to feel guilty for not reading as much as they do, though my reading shouldn’t be similarly quantified. As if I need more reasons to feel the inadequacy of knowledge, the race against my eventual demise and the endless miles of literature that I still want to cross, though I know I shan’t succeed.
And yet, despite all the anguish that our reading can cause, there is something infinitely greater to to be gained. Whether I read one book in my life or 10 million, as long as it is the right one for me, it can change things for me more than any actual life event will. Reading is the easiest access for sharing our humanity. When we write, speak or sing, we are calling to be heard. When we pick up a book, however, we are listening. We are opening our reservoirs of empathy for the writer to make full use of. Reading is lonely, intimate, and yet can create worlds unimagined. Without actually having to “do” something, it makes us live through any number of lives. The need of the hour is to rescue reading from its hallowed throne of high culture and bring it down to everyman. Let no man or woman be made to feel that their reading is inadequate, that their understanding of the world is limited. For reading opens one up to the world, not guard it with a golden key.