Yes, I admit it: I’m a reader. Several times a day, and for no apparent reason, I voluntarily take myself off to handy mobile rectangles, which I carry with me and which, as far as anyone else is concerned, have nothing to offer but unanimated black letters on a white background arranged in a random, desert-like fashion. There is none of the movement, pictures, movies, colours, links, ads or anything else that is usually so important.
There were times when this dependence was tolerated, even encouraged – as used to be the case with smoking back in the day. Nowadays, we stand out, us readers. And, just like for nicotine addicts, it’s become harder to secure a reliable supply of the good stuff. We’re the ones who sit with our corners in front of our faces, while everyone else is staring at their screens.
We’re outsiders. Reading seems to be something unsocial, outdated and shorn of all sensuality. You risk not training your immune system enough through lack of exercise, get more susceptible to viruses, put yourself in danger of dying fat and alone. Any attempt at self-improvement that shifts from the gym to the reading chair risks a ban from my health insurer.
And yet I can’t get enough.
When I go on holiday, which I actually still do, I don’t pick beaches based on the quality of their water or the fineness of their sand. More important as far as I’m concerned is their proximity to thick, shady trees that will keep the heat and light away and allow my mobile rectangles to be unfolded with ease. Incidentally, the best ones are stone pines, not least because of their pleasantly unobtrusive smell, which undoubtedly enhances the reading experience in a sensual way.
Travelling to parts of the world untouched by civilization should serve as good preparation for book addicts. They have to be prepared to compromise. For reasons of weight if nothing else, they’d be advised to swap their traditional mobile rectangles for a lightweight, equally portable slab with its own light, which gives its user somewhere to escape to and provides a welcome distraction from acute snoring terror, for example in the dormitories of tiny mountain huts. What’s more, it means that, even in completely bookstore-free places like southern Patagonia and northern Texas, they can download new books in their native language that would never all have fitted in their rucksack otherwise.
When I’m not going quite so far, to Italy for example, and can take suitcases, I always bring several folding rectangles with me so I’m prepared for all eventualities. In this case, they’re not just for escaping into my own little corner in the piazza in the evenings. No, when on vacation in Italy, a closed rectangle whose brightly coloured title sits slightly mysteriously, like a hidden sign, on the bistro table next to my Campari and soda and little aperitivo nibbles, can perform a social function and, at least now and then, can lead to some thoroughly welcome conversations: “Oh, I’ve read that too!”
But, and now let me be honest, as a reader I believe that travelling is overrated – and this despite lockdown. Because why would you need to travel when you can experience the world and meet people without having to go outside your own front door? Now, I’m not proposing to ban flights and replace them with subsidized book club memberships. I’m interested in freedom, genuine freedom. Because, for me as a book addict who’s resistant to therapy, travelling with my mind is just as liberating as the other kind of travel. If not more so.
Open a book, open your mind is what it says on the T-shirts at the public library in Burlington, Iowa. I agree.
And, besides opening up new horizons, if travel is supposed to be mainly about relaxing, then I can only say that a head that voluntarily puts itself in a rectangle will get close to achieving this aim extremely quickly. Researchers at the University of Sussex discovered that as little as six minutes of reading a day can reduce stress levels by up to 68 percent. These six minutes reduce your heart rate and ease tension in your muscles.
But researchers, you might say, are not really a reliable source, because they themselves are always hiding behind some mobile rectangles in their ivory towers. But maybe you could try to embrace this new attitude. As an experiment, let’s say. After all, I’ve already drawn you a little bit out of your comfort zone and away from your cell phone – you’re reading now, aren’t you? In fact, the study revealed some more surprising comparisons.
It discovered that reading, with its significant capacity to reduce stress – which, incidentally, is only achieved in the analogue rather than the digital way – is demonstrably more relaxing than drinking a cup of tea, going for a walk or listening to music. This is surprising, of course. Because, if we get 68 percent from reading, then it doesn’t really matter, does it, if tea gives us only just under 54 percent, let’s say. In other words, it’s these really simple things – not the Maldives, Hollywood or power shopping, but drinking tea, going around the block and putting on some Rolling Stones. Wherever you do it.
And if you put all of this together in a completely unscientific way, then the combination of these simple things will produce a kind of multifactorial doping administered through the medium of reading. So why not drink a cup of tea under a shady tree with an occasional forest view while reading a good book before breaking off for your evening walk complete with Stones soundtrack? How low will our stress levels fall then? Let’s give it a try.
I think that, now in particular, in these (hopefully) post-pandemic times, we need and should use every single bit of stress relief that we can get our hands on and make no apology for doing so. Because we’re all so very ready for our island getaway. So it’s really good to know that this island may well be much closer than we all think. But, as I’ve said, my name is Carl, and I’m a book addict. And how about you?