In 2014, Svend Brinkmann, professor of psychology at Aalborg University, Denmark, published a book entitled Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze. In the book, Brinkmann applies the wisdom of the Stoics of Ancient Greece and Rome to counter the modern trend of challenging oneself to grow and develop. He advocates ‘standing firm’: putting down that self-help book and picking up… a novel.
Brinkmann explains his thinking on this point in a Psychology Today article:
Self-help books always top the bestseller lists, but often reinforce the idea that life is something we control. Ultimately, they leave you despondent at your failure to realise their myriad promises of happiness, wealth and health. Novels, on the other hand, enable you to understand human life as complex and unmanageable.
Whether or not you subscribe to Brinkmann’s thinking on ‘resisting today’s obsession with introspection and self-improvement’, his recommendation to read a novel is compelling. The novel, he says, is the means by which you can understand human life. That’s astonishingly powerful!
Last week, Lisa Lucas, the executive director of the National Book Foundation in the US, wrote a piece for TIME magazine entitled ‘Stop Saying Books Are Dead. They’re More Alive Than Ever’. In the article, she argues that not only are books – in particular novels – not dead, but they can never be, because: ‘Storytelling is fundamental to human beings. It is how we explore and make sense of this world and understand one another.’
I am reminded of Philip Pullman’s words: ‘After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.’
There is a common misconception by those who are not readers that stories are simply distractions, escapism; that they are merely a source of entertainment. But when we tell a child a bedtime story, we are not only seeking to entertain that child.
We are seeking to provide education, to teach the child something about the world and themselves. Here’s how this works. Do you see?
We are seeking to comfort the child and help them feel connected. Do you recognise yourself in this? You are not alone.
We are seeking to inspire the child. You could do this, or this. You have a different idea? Wonderful!
We may have grown into adults now, but at heart we are still those children who wanted, and needed, bedtime stories, and we always will be.
‘Literature strengthens our imagination,’ writes Lisa Lucas. ‘If we all have the tools to try to imagine a better world, we’re already halfway there.’
Imagination – that is the keyword here. ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge,’ Einstein stated. ‘Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’ Imagination is power; what you imagine can create change, in yourself and in others. ‘Everything you can imagine is real,’ said
People have always lived by stories, as evidenced by the texts of classical civilisations like the Greeks and Romans. Since the invention of the printing press, those stories have been captured on paper. Yes, we can absorb stories through digital mediums now: Netflix series, audiobooks, ebooks. But the printed book, how can that ever die, when it is such a satisfying medium for storytelling – the beauty of the book, its portability, the quiet serenity of the reading experience.
So long as we have stories, I think, we shall have books; and because we need stories in order to make sense of the world and shape it, we shall always have stories.