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Entertainment, enlightenment, or escape?

| Tuesday, October 26, 2021

There’s a picture of me from when I was young that my mom loves to show to whomever she can, from Facebook friends to any of my friends who come to visit. I’m probably about two or three, asleep in my bed, surrounded by at least a dozen books, some open and some closed, all sprawled out around me as if forming a nest. Apparently, I used to do this a lot as a kid: fall asleep buried in my favorite books. As I grew up, I largely maintained my love of reading. I got in trouble in elementary school for reading books tucked behind a math textbook, I spent my middle school years buried in the worlds of YA dystopias, and I loved my high school English classes for teaching me that books had lessons beyond the words on the page. I went through phases, of course, but always found my way back to the books I loved. 

When I got to college, however, I found myself paralyzed — I had never had so much assigned reading for school before. I usually try to read before I go to sleep, but after drowning in homework for hours, I couldn’t bear to touch my bookshelf. For my first two years of college, my unpredictable yet consistent commitment to reading had vanished. I still loved perusing bookstores, talking about books and thinking about reading, but I just never really made time for it. 

In March of my sophomore year, right before COVID-19 pandemic began, I wandered around a bookstore and picked up a novel: George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo.” I had no idea when I was actually going to read this, but I’d heard great things and was excited about the prospect of reading for pleasure again. Little did I know, I would soon have an abundance of reading time. 

With no school, no homework, and no plans for three weeks, I devoured “Lincoln in the Bardo” and finally turned my attention to my ever-growing to-be-read shelf. I won’t lie and say I spent all day every day reading — I spent my fair share of time on Tik Tok — but I was reading again. I finally felt like I had time for it, and more importantly I found in books what I couldn’t find anywhere else: an escape. 

I’ve always found the concept of escapist literature funny, mostly because I was never exactly sure what it meant. A quick Google search tells me it is “fiction that provides a psychological escape from depressing and grave realities of every day.” It’s generally limited to genre fiction, and is distinct from classics that deal with serious subject matter. But what is it about escapist books that really feels like an escape? If it’s truly the experience of escaping to a different world, then contemporary romance books can’t be escapist. If it’s providing a joyous, loving story distinct from the “grave realities” of our world, then dark horror or sci-fi novels couldn’t make the cut. 

After I finished “Lincoln in the Bardo,” an experimental novel about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, I read a collection of Stephen King’s short stories, then Truman Capote’s true crime epic “In Cold Blood,” then Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, “Wild.” I then tackled John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” which I somehow never read in high school, and then V.E. Schwab’s contemporary romance “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.” These books traverse genres and deal with subject matters both light and dark, yet they all provided me an escape. I found an escape in the horrific story behind “In Cold Blood,” the tragic misadventures of the Joad family in “The Grapes of Wrath,” and the star-crossed romance at the heart of “Addie LaRue.” 

I certainly cannot speak definitively for everyone who reads, but for me, every novel is an escape. One of my favorite parts about diving into a new book is getting situated within a story and living in a new world, whether that world is in a galaxy far, far away or blocks away from my childhood home. The unique beauty of reading is the way it forces you to pay attention and forces you to be consumed. It’s entertainment just like TV or movies, but it doesn’t do any of the work for you. You can’t mindlessly scroll Twitter while reading a book, and you can’t plan out your next vacation in your head. All novels force you to pay attention, and as a result force you to briefly forget your life and live someone else’s. 

In the same way you can argue that all fiction is escapist, you can also argue that none of it is. Good literature consumes you, but it doesn’t let you forget yourself either. The best novels, regardless of genre, are ultimately about what it’s like to be alive, something we are all grappling with all the time. Sure, “Lincoln in the Bardo” transported me to a 19th century graveyard, but in doing so I couldn’t help but think about the grief consuming our society at large. The “Grapes of Wrath” is about people living a life entirely different from my own, but as I read I formed the kernels of my eventual senior thesis, centered around poverty in rural America. Even as books magically transport you to a new world, they cannot help but speak to you in some way, as a human being. It’s the real beauty of literature that it manages to do both. 

As I’ve rediscovered my childhood love of reading, I have found books to be an invaluable escape from and an insightful guide to navigating the most volatile, unpredictable times of my life. Whether you’re reading this as an avid reader, a lapsed one, or someone who never reads for fun, I encourage you to pick up a new book and just see where it takes you. Whatever you find in those pages, I promise you it’s worth your attention.

Ellie Konfrst is a senior studying political science with a minor in the Hesburgh Program for Public Service. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she’s excited people will once again be forced to listen to her extremely good takes. You can find her off campus trying to decide whether or not she’ll go to law school or bragging that Taylor Swift follows her on Tumblr. She can be reached at [email protected] or @elliekonfrst13 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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