When it comes to literature, there’s a lot of talk around “escapism.” We find solace in reading. Good books provide parallel worlds that entertain, inspire or encourage us in our lives. I’ve always been grateful for books. As a kid, I often felt closer to fictional characters than to the kids with whom I grew up so the notion of books as “transportive” is wholly familiar to me.
In those days, I read works that relied on fairies, dragons or castles to advance the book’s narrative. I understood escapism in terms of fantasy. In some ways, I still do. Even books grounded in realist perspectives offer opportunities for mental travel. “Fantasies” are defined by the act of imagining, so all books provide a fantastical element of some sort. The writing may present logical elements. A book, say, on start-ups would not be categorized as “fantasy,” but the reader’s ability to imagine themselves as launching a successful start-up is rooted in the brain’s ability to fantasize, in it’s ability to “escape.”
The reason this post is a part of my “healthy living” section is simple. I believe that “escapism,” however you wish to interpret the word, is essential to our mental health. I became obsessed with the concept of escapism while travelling in Iceland in 2015. The trip consisted of thirty days walking through empty lands, wild camping with my best friend and filling time by “recreating.” My “recreating” often consisted of throwing down my pack to lay in a field and read. I knew the two books accompanying me would become secondary companions (I brought “Island” by Alistair McLeod and “The Weight of Oranges” by Anne Michaels) but I’d never have guessed how much solace those books would bring me while sitting in the middle of nowhere. Likewise, I wild camped alone in Alaska last summer and binge read “Fifteen Dogs” by Andre Alexis to distract myself from the thought of Grizzlies and Wolves.
When you do nothing but walk for days on end, often through lands that look the same for days at a time, the mind is given a chance to wander. I had no cell-phone, Netflix, chores, lists of errands or schedules to which I was bound. The freedom was glorious. But it was also frightening, exhausting and challenging. I contemplated some of my deepest fears, reflected on years of disregarded anxiety. The result? Occasional roadside breakdowns and a whole lot of crying. Thank goodness for it. Facing those issues helped me grow but, like anything in life, we must approach ideas or projects with care and patience.
Humans are generally very adaptable creatures, but we are also susceptible to shock. Too much of anything can feel like an overload. So where do books come in? While I’m deeply grateful for the lessons I learned and the realizations that came to me whilst backpacking, I couldn’t process those realizations quickly enough. For this reason, I used books as a buffer. I found a balance between facing difficult realities and letting myself escape. This balance was necessary to protect my emotional and mental wellbeing. Contemplating existentialism for days on end would surely drive any sane person mad.
The concept of escape through story is not new. Consider the phenomenally insightful and cherished book “Where the Wild Things Are,” written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. The plot is well known. Max, parading through the house in an adorable wolf costume, wreaks havoc and is sent to bed without dinner. I’m guessing that most of us, in our childhoods, were acquainted with “time-outs.” I know I was. What an awful feeling, to be confined to a room, to feel bored or exhausted by weighted tears. But “Where the Wild Things Are,” is a kind of ode to our imagination. A reminder that human minds are capable of spectacular transformation.
So I’d like to take a moment to thank my brain. Perhaps you’d like to thank yours too. I thank mine for its ability to fantasize, to carry me new places, to protect me in times of sadness, stress or anger. “Escaping” to worlds livened by ink has, more than once, saved me.