Over the past couple of years in the UK, loneliness has become a topic for discussion. The Duke of Cambridge’s campaigning on mental health is bringing such social issues into the open. We’re worrying about elderly people who are too isolated and alone. But we’re also worrying about other groups of people who have been quietly – and painfully – lonely for a long time.
It’s no coincidence that the hit women’s literature novel of this year has been Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, which is the story of a very lonely lady. The author, Gail Honeyman, told the Telegraph, ‘I hope Eleanor Oliphant has helped to fuel the debate on loneliness.’ Her heroine, Eleanor, ‘goes to work, comes home and spends entire weekends without speaking to a soul’.
The Jo Cox Loneliness Commission (http://www.jocoxloneliness.org/) identified loneliness as ‘one of the most pressing public health challenges facing the country’, and the government has appointed a dedicated minister for loneliness. The media now routinely refers to ‘the loneliness epidemic’ (http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/why-we-need-to-talk-about-loneliness-epidemic-a3871831.html).
But how can we tackle this loneliness? Reading is one suggestion.
Research by Demos and The Reading Agency charity found that reading books ‘significantly reduces feelings of loneliness’ and it helps people to build closer relationships. The Reading Agency has called on the government to build ‘a society of readers’ through investing £200 million in reading as a means to alleviate loneliness. In particular, they are working to build their national reading group programme, Reading Friends, which enables people to meet socially through their mutual enjoyment of books.
But journalist Arifa Akbar points out in the Guardian that ‘if we poured that £200m back into the libraries we seem so intent on closing or starving, we could magic up the large print and audio books, the reading groups, the well-stocked shelves of stories that could help us in our darkest times’.
Do you agree, as the CEO of Demos put it, that ‘reading can transform society’? Are books powerful tools to combat loneliness?
I believe so. As William Nicholson wrote for the character of CS Lewis in the movie Shadowlands: ‘We read to know we’re not alone.’