January is traditionally the month of the self-help book as we all resolve to get fit, lose weight, give up alcohol, be more mindful, declutter, make radical lifestyle changes.
But maybe we are looking for answers in the wrong place? Or in the wrong type of book. Instead of digesting instruction on how to attain the perfect body/storage solution/work-life balance, perhaps our time might be better spent engaging with fiction. Of course there is value in trying to take positive steps towards a healthier, more organised lifestyle but nurturing our souls is equally important – and there are few better ways of doing that than immersing yourself in a story.
The power of the story – whether it is told on the page, on stage, in film, visual art or music – cannot be underestimated. It can transform lives, change attitudes and ways of thinking; it certainly encourages empathy, allowing us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and enter into the realm of a bigger, shared experience. Like all art forms, literature helps us to make sense of our own lives and understand what it means to be human but perhaps more than any other it allows time for reflection. You dictate the pace at which the story unfolds, which in today’s frenetic, constantly-connected modern world can be a source of solace. Curling up with a good book – I’m talking paper and real pages that you can touch, turn and feel – is a comfortingly old-fashioned, offline pursuit. Reading a book is really all about the words on the page and your own imagination. My version of what, say, Mr Darcy looks like (alright, bad example, Colin Firth, obviously, but you get my drift) might be quite different to someone else’s. Re-reading books, especially classics you may have read as a teenager, is also an interesting exercise – they develop other resonances at different stages in your life; your own experiences begin to shape your response. And it’s worth remembering that being a ‘consumer’ of art is not a passive activity – you enter into a relationship with the novelist, artist, musician, filmmaker or theatre director. You are part of the creative equation. The author Colm Toibin said recently on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs that as a writer he is used to solitude so theoretically, as long as he had pen and paper, a desert island wouldn’t be a problem for him, but ‘the notion of not having a readership would drive me nuts’.
So, by all means – go to the gym, limit your calorie/alcohol intake, clear out those cupboards, but also make sure you that you pick up a novel, visit an exhibition, go and see a film or a play. Or listen to your favourite David Bowie track – now there’s someone who knew how to tell a story...