So, following on from last week, in our 4 post series which will be part of Harness Your Reader’s Psychology, we’re delving deeper into why readers read. This week, we’re exploring exactly why we are so drawn to narrative…and it may not be the reason you think!
If you were to ask a fellow Homo Sapien why they read, they’ll give you a variety of answers. In fact, I polled my readers, asking them this very same question, and here are some of the answers I received:
‘If I’m having a bad day or I’m stressed, I block everything out and pick up a book. I feel much better after I’ve spent a few hours reading.’
‘I read because I love stories! As a mom of five kids it is a stress reliever to be able to pick up a book and let my imagination take over for an hour or so. ‘
What’s not to love about a good book!! They offer adventure, romance, thrills, chills, and mystery!! A book offers escape from our daily grind!! You can escape between the pages for awhile!! Travel to new cities, foreign lands or briefly experience life in the past. There is no limit to what you can see or experience through the pages of a book!! I love to read!! There is nothing that can compare to a well written book!!
‘As an escape. Life isn’t easy and escaping into someone else’s “life” gives me a break from my own.’
Psychologists like to look for themes, overarching principles, so that they can understand general trends in human thoughts or behaviours. Looking at the responses above, some say it explicitly, others allude to it, but they all say ‘escapism’ in one form or the other, and they all point to reading feeling good. If you asked me that question a few years ago, I would have said the same thing. Losing yourself in a world not my own is exactly why I read. It feels good to disappear into those imaginary places.
But if you think about it, reading for escapism is actually counterintuitive.
To start with, when we dive into a story, we’re usually diving into situations that are more stressful, angst-filled, and emotional than the ones we experience in real life. Books walk us through journeys defined by heart-ache, loss, zombies, and pain. Why we don’t like to lose ourselves in stories of happy families and the mundane is something we’ll cover later. For now, appreciating that the good stories which draw us in and don’t let go are founded on struggle and stress raises a valid point.
How can that be escapism?
Secondly, losing yourself to the point where reality dissolves into the peripheral (how many of us have had toast or pasta burn because we got lost in a book?), isn’t smart. Evolutionary speaking, it’s deadly. That’s when predators pounce, thief’s see a window of opportunity, or rivals drag your partner into the night.
Evolution but doesn’t have the time or the energy to carry useless, frivolous, potentially dangerous traits through the generations. And if you think about it, getting lost in a story isn’t obviously useful: from centuries ago, when keeping an eye out for sabre tooth tigers was pretty essential for survival, through to modern times, where keeping down a job means food in your fridge.
And yet story has been so pervasive and universal that it’s survived the ruthless mill of evolution, that unrelenting process that screens out anything that doesn’t ensure our species will be here to produce future generations. If it’s not securing our survival, then its cut. Gone.
Why then? Why is story still around? Why is it woven so tightly into the layers of our life?
Is it possible, that story actually serves a function in human survival?
Essentially, story was, and continues to be, our first virtual reality. Just like it’s much safer for pilots to learn to fly in simulators, we get to learn the complicated lessons of life through the experience of others. In the same way pilots prefer to make their mistakes much closer to the ground, we get to see what could happen if our baby sitter didn’t turn out to be who we thought they were, how to take down a zombie, what a serial killer is capable of, or how to navigate a dystopian world, what the ripple effect of having an affair with your neighbour is. In real life, mistakes can be devastating for pilots and us alike. With story, we get to do all of this and more, all without the deadly crash landing.
In fact, readers in my poll captured it beautifully:
‘To travel, fly, love, cry and live without moving from my seat. Books are my precious friends.’
‘To live multiple lives in multiple different shoes.’
‘Reading takes me to places I haven’t been, both real and imaginary. I experience emotions that I may not have had or can empathise with. I can remember the intensity of falling in love, giving birth, loving children, the excitement of seeing wondrous places, and experience the fear and dread of experiences I hope I shall never have.’
It’s the last words that really capture that reading is about far more than escapism: ‘experience the fear and dread of experiences I hope I shall never have.’ And yet, she chooses to immerse herself in it.
When I learnt all this, as a reader I felt validated. I finally figured out why I turn up to work gritty eyed and wishing I drank coffee because ‘just one more chapter’ turned into ‘there’s only a hundred pages to go’ (and obviously, there’s no point in stopping). It’s not about poor self-control, an addictive personality or a belief I can function on three hours sleep. My brain is wired to want this! (Okay, fine…maybe self-control got skipped in my DNA…)
But as a writer I was fascinated.
Readers are unconsciously drawn to our words for more than just escapism. There are certain elements their subconscious brain is looking for, and once we know what that is…
We can give it to them.
As for what that is? That will be next week’s post 🙂
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