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  • Hannah Fielding - Romance Novelist

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We all know that reading fiction is a means of escape: from wherever you are reading, you are transported to the fictional world, to another place and time, and that can be as inspiring, relaxing and enjoyable as travelling for real. Have you ever considered, though, that reading is not only an escape into the author’s story world, but also an escape into your own story – your past?

I was fascinated to read of a study conducted by researchers at the University of Liverpool (published in the journal Medical Humanities and described in the Medical News Today) that found shared reading can alleviate chronic pain. Shared reading is defined as ‘an interactive reading experience in which small groups of people gather to read short stories, poetry, and other literature aloud’. The point of this reading is to ‘prompt memories of relationships, family members, work, and other experiences that arise throughout a lifetime’.

The researchers found that the severity of pain and mood in the study participants improved for up to two days following shared reading, and they suggest that shared reading could be as helpful – if not more so – than the cognitive behavioural therapy currently recommended for people suffering from chronic pain. Basically, shared reading – reading that helps trigger pain-free memories for people – can help alleviate real, current pain.

What I found most interesting about this study was that at its core is the fact that reading can quickly and meaningfully create an escape into a person’s past. As William Nicholson wrote for the film Shadowlands, ‘We read to know we’re not alone.’ When we read, we connect to the writer – we take a journey together – and, crucially, we connect with our past self in two ways:

First, the story sparks memories. Say the heroine is described as eating toad-in-the-hole, which makes you remember that your mother used to cook toad-in-the-hole for supper, every Thursday through the winter months, and it was your favourite meal. You have escaped not only into the story world but also into your own past; you are back in the kitchen of your childhood home on a stormy December evening, sitting with your family and talking and laughing together while you tuck into toad-in-the-hole and pass around the gravy – which your mother always made that special way; best you’ve ever tasted. The memory is happy; it’s warm and comforting and uplifting. Reading has given you that feeling.

In addition, reading has connected you to the past in another important way. If you are reading a novel now, no doubt you have long been a reader. You love reading; it’s part of who you are. So today, when you pick up the book and escape into the story world, you are doing as you’ve done so many times. Not only do you read of the character’s supper and remember your own from childhood, but you are aware that you are enjoying the read and that you have done so before; you remember so many times being lost in a book – in a park, on a train, curled up in a chair – and that is a happy memory; it’s warm and comforting and uplifting. Reading has given you that feeling too.

As I write, a single word resonates in my mind: powerful. Reading is powerful! It can lift your mood, it can comfort you, it can inspire you – it can take away pain. As Harvard president Charles William Eliot wrote: ‘Books are the quietest and most constant of friends…’

Quite simply, where would we be without books?!

  • TREKnRay

    Reading any of your books about Spain takes me back to all the times I’ve been there. Other things come back like the time I took a tour of the churches of Barcelona that extended to the Monastery at Montserrat. It was during the time of Ferdinand Franco.
    As the bus was climbing the mountain there were wheat fields guarded by uniformed men with machine guns. In addition to wheat the fields contained poppies.

    As we climbed farther the road wound around the edge of the cliffs. If our bus met an oncoming bus one had to stop. There was a wedding in the monastery while we were there. It is supposed to be good luck to marry or renew marriage vows in Montserrat. On the way down one lane of the highway had collapsed at a curve. If the driver had not been skilled we would have ended up on top of the pile of rocks. He could go no more than five kilometers an hour and had to back up and try again to avoid leaving the road. Once we were safe everyone was having as much fun as on the ride up the mountain. It was as if the fear hadn’t happened.
    I have been told that children learn to read faster if they read aloud to their dog or a classroom dog. A TV movie that I love has two children who raise money by reading to seniors in a home. The administrator of the home catches the kids and calls their mother. They get to continue because the seniors demand the readings continue.

    • hannahfielding

      What a colourful and vivid memory; thank you so much for sharing this.

      Best wishes, Hannah

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