The Comfort of Reading During Difficult Times

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIt’s not easy living in the age of coronavirus. These are the best of times. These are the worst of times. How do we get through it? My thoughts drift to a young boy, dirty, destitute, and tired from working in a miserable factory job because his father was imprisoned in a debtor’s prison. That period of desperation and poverty motivated him to eventually achieve great artistic and financial success as a world-renown author. His name? Charles Dickens. However, the memories that misery and humiliation haunted him his entire life. At the peak of his success, Dickens confessed, “My whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time in my life.” In David Copperfield, his favorite and most autobiographical novel, we get a glimpse of how a young boy survived that dark period — he found comfort and escape in literature:

“I believe I should have been almost stupefied but for one circumstance. It was this. My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time, — they, and the Arabian Nights, and the Tales of the Genii, — and did me no harm; for whatever harm was in some of them was not there for me; I knew nothing of it. It is astonishing to me now, how I found time, in the midst of my porings and blunderings over heavier themes, to read those books as I did. It is curious to me how I could ever have consoled myself under my small troubles (which were great troubles to me), by impersonating my favourite characters in them — as I did — and by putting Mr. and Miss Murdstone into all the bad ones – which I did too. I have been Tom Jones (a child’s Tom Jones, a harmless creature) for a week together. I have sustained my own idea of Roderick Random for a month at a stretch, I verily believe. I had a greedy relish for a few volumes of Voyages and Travels — I forget what, now — that were on those shelves; and for days and days I can remember to have gone about my region of our house, armed with the centre-piece out of an old set of boot-trees – the perfect realization of Captain Somebody, of the Royal British Navy, in danger of being beset by savages, and resolved to sell his life at a great price. The Captain never lost dignity, from having his ears boxed with the Latin Grammar. I did; but the Captain was a Captain and a hero, in despite of all the grammars of all the languages in the world, dead or alive.

This was my only and my constant comfort. When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life. Every barn in the neighbourhood, every stone in the church, and every foot of the churchyard, had some association of its own, in my mind, connected with these books, and stood for some locality made famous in them. I have seen Tom Pipes go climbing up the church-steeple; I have watched Strap, with the knapsack on his back, stopping to rest himself upon the wicket-gate; and I know that Commodore Trunnion held that club with Mr. Pickle, in the parlour of our little village alehouse.” (Excerpt from chapter 4 of David Copperfield.)

Let us hope that the image of a scruffy young boy, huddled in the corner, reading a book inspires us to find the comfort of reading during the worst of times. Let us seek the wisdom of literature that reaffirms our shared humanity — however fragile and imperfect — and inspires empathy and understanding that will eventually lead to the best of times.

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