• Stewart Knights

The Simple Act of Reading: Escapism or Exploration?

Updated: Oct 25, 2019

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A Replica of The Rosetta Stone that you can touch! - The British Museum, London


It is common-knowledge that reading is healthy, enjoyable and a very productive past-time that our parents say we should do more of. Statistically, they’re right - a study conducted by Wilhelm and Smith (2016) deduced that “children's leisure reading is important for educational attainment and social mobility . . . and suggest that the mechanism for this is increased cognitive development.” This is clear evidence towards the psychological benefits of digging into a good book but this does beg the question, do we read to escape or, rather, do we read to explore?

"Childrens leisure reading is important for educational attainment and social mobiliy"

Chapter 1 - The Protagonist Unveiled?

Reading is undeniably an intensely powerful and staggeringly efficient vehicle of transportation to worlds we could never come to know. Films, TV and all other visual media try to do this in a more consumable way - but I would argue that it goes too far (a topic for another post). Regardless of the medium - we reach equifinality in that we end up somewhere new, somewhere novel and somewhere delicately frozen in our own perceptions. In this way, we escape to another facet of life. 

However, there is another way to look at this refreshing immersion into the rippling pages of a new book. We may dive into a new interstellar and nebulous universe, but we inevitably explore this landscape until it becomes a little more recognisable. We signpost for ourselves, reminding ourselves of the time when we saw that thing - the joy we shared with the protagonist as we aged gracefully, together, to the point where we place ourselves as part of their world and they become part of ours. Both ourselves and the characters float around in a comfortable limbo where we are something less than flesh and they are something more than ink. This exploratory process must not be overlooked as it is the single most enjoyable aspect (in my opinion) of reading.

But the question must be asked, when do we pass through the threshold of escapism to exploration, or is it the other way round? Are they mutually exclusive or can we not have one without the other and, most importantly, what happens when we shut the covers?

Chapter 2 - The Chicken or the Egg?

When we pick up a book, it is difficult, almost impossible, to define at what point we are escaping and what point we are exploring. In fact, I would suggest that this is something very few of us think of when we feel the dense weight of fresh literature in our hands. However, I would like to suggest that our external environment is very much key to this definition and directly has an effect on our internal environment and thus our reading environment. 

Lets conceptualise our character, Laura - a curious mind who loves to roll around in literature in her spare time - unwinding like a tightly coiled spring as she explores the novel environment of her books. Crucially, on this particular day, Laura - albeit comically - falls over and drops her coffee on the floor which is met by subsequent laugher and unwelcoming gestures. Internalising this event, Laura goes home and delves into her book again - reading avidly until, eventually, she sighs with relief as she settles into the pages, blending with the crisp paper of the book. Here, we observe escapism - a way to remove ourself from the real world through the form of transportation to an alternative, fictional timeline. However, Laura is usually an explorer, finding great pleasure in the art of decoding long sentences and complicated lexicon as she navigates the densely overgrown canopy of her imagination. It is only through these negative externalities that she has reentered the forest not in search of novelty - but in a paradoxical search of becoming lost. In this way, I would argue that exploration and escapism are two separate exercises, however, it can be easy to fool ourself into the notion that we are exploring when what we are really desiring is the ability to escape. 

Chapter 3 - The Chicken or the Turkey?

Building upon our previous differentiation of escapism and exploration, I would like to suggest one further derivation of exploration, this being both positive and negative exploration. These two timelines coexist - branching off powerfully from their antecedent but only occurring after the fact - this fact being the closing of our book. In the realm of positive exploration, we explore through the lens of curiosity - seeking nothing but finding lots. The key to this is an indiscriminate mind - allowing ourselves to see facts objectively and internalise their consequences within the universe we have come to exist within. Once we close the book, we begin to see an overlay of our fictional world superimposed onto our real-world - allowing us to cross-reference our morals with those explored in the novel we left behind and find congruence between the two. 

As for negative exploration - there are more definite lines to this form - however this may not be a good thing. An open-mind is crucial in any cognitive exercise - allowing us to form opinions in due course as opposed to predicting our emotions to a situation, not listening as well as we should and subsequently missing the purpose of the interaction. In this way we scan the landscape and subsequently disrupt the mountains and move the sun until we see what we want to see - not what we are being shown. This is also true for reading and emphasises the importance of positive exploration and denounces the effects of negative exploration - urging us to to explore with a closed mouth and an open mind rather than the opposite. 

Chapter 4 - A Critical Juncture?

So far we have established that reading can be a form of escapism or exploration - with exploration flowing down two separate estuaries from its source and allowing us the choice to explore in a positive or negative way. The question we must answer now - is reading a positive exercise, then?

I would argue, undeniably, yes. Whilst there can be perceivably negative reasons for pressing our face into the delicate spine of a thickly bound-book - the key is how we respond to the world once we avert our gaze from the pages and scan our surroundings. Colours seem brighter, people seem gleefully more complex and problems seem infinitely more solvable. Our perception has been broadened infinitely as we live our own lives through our own eyes as opposed to the life of someone else. Conversations ricochet from tangent to tangent as we find the ability to delve deeper into our own mind and the minds of others - learning more about our emotions than we ever thought we could know. The air feels smoother and the world feels more probable. 

The art of reading is exactly this - an art, and it was Agathon who explicated “art loves chance and chance loves art” and through the exercise of immersing ourselves in art, we begin to identify the undercurrents of serendipity flowing passionately through our world.

Chapter 5 - The Sequel?

It would be a disservice if I didn’t relate the art of reading to the art of public speaking. Reading, in my opinion, is the antecedent to public speaking. It is the most positive application of internal exploration to our external sensory environment. By traversing previously insurmountable topographies, diving to depths unknown to any other human and being subject to experiences almost inexplicable - our depth of conversation deepens and our public speaking ability improves. 

Our vocabulary becomes floral, almost, our mannerisms excitable and extravagant with our impassioned narrative impenetrably strong and convincing. We find ourselves sidestepping elegantly through tangents whilst catching the central flow of our narrative effortlessly and just at the right time as our mind flicks almost systematically though our thoughts and sensations. Reading is an inherently positive exercise, but public speaking, I would suggest, is the most natural next step. 

One of my first presentations at Bolton School - November 2018


The wonder of reading is the exploratory power it gives the reader; as they traverse the harsh topography of Columbia in search of Macondo, experience Igbo life in African Villages and live fervidly through times way before their own, on a train, a plane, at home or any such mundane location. The confinement’s of the mind are infinitely expanded instantaneously as their immediate world becomes indiscriminately interconnected and intimate bonds are indirectly cultivated. Formed in the mind of an absolute stranger, and transferred through delicate lexicon, confined between two covers and contained in the minds of the reader. It is the most powerful and authentic way to travel the world from your sofa. 

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