Friday, 30 May 2014

Reading Fiction Doesn't Mean You're Lonely (but Non-fiction Might) (Fiction on the Brain, Part III)

If you read a lot, others may have implied - or even told you directly - that you're socially awkward or lonely because of this.

However, upon delving further into the psychological, social and cultural aspects of reading fiction, I've come across fascinating research to suggest otherwise.

"Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds" (2006) is a paper complied by psychologists including Raymond A. Mar and Keith Oatley. They've done some fascinating research into the effects of reading on the brain, and this is no exception.

Bookworms versus nerds in the social realm

In simple terms, the research in the "Bookworms versus nerds" paper suggests that while frequent readers are often stereotyped as socially awkward, this may in fact only be true of non-fiction readers.

How could this possibly be true? 

Fiction readers enter into the world of characters in a way that parallels social interaction in the real world. This allows them to bolster or maintain their social abilities in a way that non-fiction readers generally cannot.

What's the evidence?

Well, participants were examined on how much fiction and non-fiction they had been exposed to over a lifetime, alongside their performance on empathy/social-acumen measures.

Generally, the more fiction a participant had been exposed to, the better they tended to do on measures of social ability. On the other hand, non-fiction exposure tended to predict the opposite.

Also, participants with a tendency to become absorbed in a story - an inherent part of fiction - also predicted their empathy scores. You might say that the age, intelligence and level of English might sway results, but these were all controlled.

Let's keep our fiction intake topped up

You might like to try some of the feel-good, mood-boosting novels I've selected for summer, or think about what bookworm friends of yours have recently enjoyed. 

However, don't forget about non-fiction! I don't think this research should be interpreted in a way that suggests we should read more fiction than non-fiction - rather, it's a way to strike back against the 'readers are lonely' stereotype!

Mar, R.A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J.B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694–712.

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Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A Bibliotherapy Plan for OCD, Including Perfect by Rachel Joyce

Perfect by Rachel Joyce for OCD

I've written before about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), although not in terms of books which could provide sufferers with characters to relate to and feel reassured by. However, Rachel Joyce's latest novel, Perfect, has got me thinking about this.

In 1972, two seconds were added to time. It was in order to balance clock time with the movement of the earth. Byron Hemming knew this because James Lowe had told him and James was the cleverest boy at school. But how could time change? The steady movement of hands around a clock was as certain as their golden futures.

Then Byron's mother, late for the school run, makes a devastating mistake. Byron's perfect world is shattered. Were those two extra seconds to blame? Can what follows ever be set right?

Perfect is a wonderful novel about childhood friendship and growing up, but there's also a darker side to the book. Chapters alternate between the story of friends Byron Hemmings and James Lowe, growing up affluently in the seventies, and the modern perspective of Jim, who works in a supermarket cafe after Besley Hill, the psychiatric hospital he had grown to depend on, closes down.

Jim faces a daily battle with OCD, which I'm relieved isn't presented as impeccable tidiness or the habitual lining up of socks. Rather, Jim's compulsions and routines are devastatingly painful for us to witness, and are clearly rooted in the author's research of the disorder.

In the childhood chapters which interrupt Jim's story, we're left to wonder whether Byron or James will grow up to become 'Jim' and suffer from severe OCD. James, on the one hand, is extremely meticulous in almost all aspects. He excels at schoolwork, turns to lists for problem-solving, and often encourages Byron to be more logical and precise.

'If I don't do it, things might go wrong.'

'But that's not logical, James.'

'Actually it is very logical, Byron. I am not leaving anything to chance.'

Alternatively, life for Byron moves from a fairly regular upbringing (despite a generally absent father) to traumatic as the book progresses. We're also left unsure about the mental health of his mother, Diana, who seems 'perfect' on the surface but, underneath, deeply troubled.

She polished the kitchen floor every time the children crossed it, if only for a glass of Sunquick. But to be so perfect requires constant vigilance and the effort was beginning to take its toll.

For sufferers of OCD, Jim's hobby of gardening in Perfect can be a great motivation to take up something similar. 

Although the story becomes a little weak towards the centre of the book, Rachel Joyce should be applauded for her treatment of mental health in this novel. Joyce underlines that it can affect anyone (or most of us), whether unexpected or with cause, and I don't feel she underplays at all how difficult life with mental illness truly can be. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder isn't often discussed in fiction (and if so, usually not well), but Rachel Joyce has successfully changed this thought for me.

Here are some reasons why I think Perfect could be a useful novel for OCD sufferers to use as bibliotherapy (alongside professional help and healthy living):

  • The value of hobbies and relaxing activities, in Jim's case gardening, is emphasised in Perfect as a way to reduce symptoms, find mindfulness, and get back to enjoying life.
  • Social support is represented as a way to manage symptoms and begin a road to recovery.
  • In Perfect, not all therapy and therapists are created equal. For those of us who have had an unhelpful course of therapy, this is a useful reminder to not be disheartened if we feel we could benefit from it.
  • Perfect shows you're never too old to get help, overcome difficult feelings and memories, and feel better about yourself as a result.

He feels bigger than the rituals; they are just a part of him, like his leg is a part of him, but not the whole person. Maybe one day he will even stop.

The following novels also have characters which may be perceived as having OCD (taken from LitTherapy):

Just in Case - Meg Rosoff
Moby Dick - Herman Melville
Just Checking - Emily Colas
Kissing Doorknobs - Terry Spencer Hesser
The Casual Vacancy - J.K. Rowling

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Tuesday, 27 May 2014

12 Life Lessons to Gain From Reading Leo Tolstoy

After completing a considerable chunk of Tolstoy's major works, I've been thinking about the lessons that I've gained through my hours, days or even weeks, of reading. 

Here are the twelve life lessons that come to mind first, which I'd like to share with you alongside some favourite quotes. After all, what better benefit of reading could there be than gaining lessons to keep with us for life?

Leo Tolstoy and life lessons

1. Expand your social circle and open up new perspectives

"He felt surrounded on all sides by quite different people, with their own serious interests, their own joys and sufferings, their own life of toil that was genuine and human. 'This is it,' thought Nekhlyudov, 'the best society'." ― Resurrection

2. Failure is normal, but setting too many rules for yourself can make it inevitable

"This is the second day when I have been indolent and failed to carry out all that I had set myself. Why so? I do not know. However, I must not despair : I will force myself to be active." ― The Diaries of Leo Tolstoy

3. Great art is often the result of great help

"Sonya's contribution should not be underestimated. Deciphering his execrable handwriting, and then preparing a legible final draft of the manuscript, was a gargantuan task..." ― Rosamund Bartlett, Tolstoy: A Russian Life

Anna Karenina's lessons to apply to our own lives
Anna Karenina, a novel which has
provided me with many life lessons.

4. Anxiety is fleeting when you shift your attention to nature and the world around us

"If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you". ― Essays, Letters and Miscellanies

5. The shortness of life scares us all

"Can it be that I have not lived as one ought?" suddenly came into his head. "But how not so, when I've done everything as it should be done? ” — Ivan Ilyich

6. Life isn't really that complicated

“Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly. It is the one thing we are interested in here.” ― Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy playing chess
Leo Tolstoy (left) playing chess with the son of his friend and publisher Vladimir Chertkov in 1907

7. We can choose our feelings and be in control of our minds

“If you want to be happy, be.” ― Leo Tolstoy

8. Be kindhearted and avoid greed

"Six feet of land was all that he needed." ― How Much Land Does a Man Need?

9. We should be careful how we define beauty

The Death of Ivan Ilyich as a guiding short story
The Death of Ivan Ilyich - perhaps the best
short story to help us understand death and
living well
"It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness". ― The Kreutzer Sonata

10. When we find ourselves wanting more, quite often we need the opposite

“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighbor — such is my idea of happiness.” ― Family Happiness

11. We all deserve an education and opportunities for lifelong learning

“To educate the peasantry, three things are needed: schools, schools and schools.” ― Anna Karenina

12. There's no such thing as perfecting ourselves - acceptance is far more valuable to pursue

"If you look for perfection, you'll never be content". ― Anna Karenina

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Monday, 26 May 2014

6 TED Talks on the Power of Books, Learning & Fiction

I've written about TED Talks a few times here on the blog, but surprisingly I've never discussed my favourite talks on books, learning and reading fiction. I've come to realise there are a fair few available (although there's certainly room for more), but here are a select few of my favourites.

I do hope you find watching them as insightful as I have, and that I've introduced you to at least one or two new ideas, speakers or books.

1. Ben Dunlap: The life-long learner

In one of the most emotional TED Talks I've seen, Wofford College president Ben Dunlap tells the story of Sandor Teszler, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who taught him about passionate living and lifelong learning. From opera to Harry Potter, this is a wonderful story of reaching out to all the art and learning available to us, and believing that humans are 'fundamentally good'.

I realized, in this moment of revelation, that what these two men were revealing was the secret of their extraordinary success, each in his own right. And it lay precisely in that insatiable curiosity, that irrepressible desire to know, no matter what the subject, no matter what the cost, even at a time when the keepers of the Doomsday Clock are willing to bet even money that the human race won't be aroundto imagine anything in the year 2100, a scant 93 years from now.

...It is this inextinguishable, undaunted appetite for learning and experience, no matter how risible, no matter how esoteric, no matter how seditious it might seem.

Ben Dunlap TED talk on lifelong learning
Wofford College president Ben Dunlap on lifelong learning,  Harry Potter and great friendships. Image source

2. Elif Shafak: The politics of fiction

I love this TED Talk largely because I share so many ideas with the speaker. Elif Shafak believes that listening to stories widens the imagination, allows us to surpass cultural walls, and helps us to embrace different and unfamiliar experiences and feelings. 

Fiction, says Elif, is the ideal tool to overcome identity politics.

In the end, stories move like whirling dervishes, drawing circles beyond circles. They connect all humanity, regardless of identity politics, and that is the good news.

Elif Shafak on fiction, books and reading
Elif Shafak, a believer in the universal qualities and multicultural benefits of fiction.  Image source.

3. Lisa Bu: How books can open your mind

I talked about Lisa Bu's wonderful TED Talk on how books can open our minds in a separate post, although I do think it deserves to be mentioned again here.
I was afraid that for the rest of my life some second-class happiness would be the best I could hope for.

But that's so unfair. So I was determined to find another calling. Nobody around to teach me? Fine. I turned to books.
Lisa Bu's TED talk on books and bibliotherapy
Lisa Bu's testament to bibliotherapy, discussing how books can open the mind and transform our lives.

4. Ron McCallum: How technology allowed me to read

Months after he was born, in 1948, Ron McCallum became blind. In this charming, moving talk, Ron shows how he is able to read, and celebrates with us the progression of technology that make it all possible. 

With the help of technology and generous volunteers, he's become a lawyer, an academic, and, most of all, a voracious reader.

I remember my mum reading a story to me and my two big brothers, and I remember putting up my hands to feel the page of the book, to feel the picture they were discussing.

And my mum said, "Darling, remember that you can't see and you can't feel the picture and you can't feel the print on the page."

And I thought to myself, "But that's what I want to do. I love stories. I want to read." Little did I know that I would be part of a technological revolution that would make that dream come true.

Ron McCallum's TED talks on books and reading
Ron McCallum, a wonderful man at the centre of the blind reading revolution.

5. Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden: What we learned from 5 million books

A fascinating representation of literary history on earth, Google Labs' Ngram Viewer lets you search for words and ideas in a database of 5 million books from across centuries. Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel show us how it works in this TED Talk, alongside a few of the surprising things we can learn from 500 billion words.

What we’re left with is a collection of five million books, 500 billion words, a string of characters a thousand times longer than the human genome — a text which, when written out, would stretch from here to the Moon and back 10 times over — a veritable shard of our cultural genome.

Jean-Baptiste Michel's TED talk on Ngram Viewer
Jean-Baptiste Michel, discussing Google Labs' Ngram Viewer and the power of books.

6. Chris Abani: Telling stories from Africa

Imprisoned three times by the Nigerian government, Chris Abani turned his experience into poems that Harold Pinter called "the most naked, harrowing expression of prison life and political torture imaginable." His novels include GraceLand (2004) and The Virgin of Flames (2007). 

Chris tells us in this TED Talk that “what we know about how to be who we are” comes from stories, and explains how we can search for the heart of Africa through its poems and narrative.

If you want to know about Africa, read our literature — and not just ‘Things Fall Apart,’ because that would be like saying, ‘I’ve read ‘Gone with the Wind’ and so I know everything about America.’

Chris Abani's talk on reading about Africa

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Friday, 23 May 2014

Fiction as a Simulation of Life (Fiction on the Brain, Part II)

Pride and Prejudice and bibliotherapy
Can Pride and Prejudice be a simulation of real life to learn from and apply to own own lives and relationships?

For the second part of my Fiction on the Brain series, I've decided to focus on Dr Oately's fascinating idea of fiction as a 'simulation' of life and the world around us.

This concept, which he discusses in Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, sheds much light on how we can use reading as a tool for self-improvement, wellbeing, and understanding the world a little better. Therefore, I think it's well worth us taking a look at his theory and considering how it can apply to our own lives and reading habits.

Generally we think of simulations in terms of computers or training equipment. As Oatley does, let's consider the example of flight simulators for pilots.

Pilots use simulators to prepare for flight in a safe, controlled way

Firstly, a pilot might use a flight simulator to experience flying before actually doing it himself, preventing both himself and others from unnecessary risk before he has the skills required.

Secondly, by using a flight simulator, a pilot can experience a wider range of situations than he would experience on the average flight. The pilot can intentionally choose to develop skills that need to be strengthened, and practise safety in a secure and risk-free environment.

All in all, the simulator prepares the pilot for the real thing, and strengthens skills that he can transfer to flying an actual plane.

How do flight simulators relate to reading fiction?

In literature we can find almost every feeling, situation and problem that a person could be facing; it's rare to be feeling or experiencing something that isn't somewhere in a book.

Fiction, essentially, is a simulation of life, relationships, selfhood and group interaction. Think of Anna Pavlovna's soirée which opens Tolstoy's War and Peace, or Oatley's example of the Meryton Assembly Room dance in Pride and Prejudice.

Oatley asks: if fiction can be seen as a simulation, do people who read more of it perceive social interactions better than non-readers (or non-fiction readers)?

After research into the Mind in the Eyes Test by Raymond Mar and his colleagues (in which participants have to select the most applicable mental state after looking at photographs of people's eyes), alongside the Interpersonal Perception Test, the answer is essentially: yes.

Reading fiction makes navigating reality and social situations easier for us

The more fiction people read, the better they seemed to be at the Mind in the Eyes Test (and the Interpersonal Perception Test too, although not with such strong results). Even when the researchers controlled personality types and individual differences, the results didn't change.

After all, fiction gets us thinking about the social world by opening up the worlds of other characters and their relationships with others. In summary, we can say that reading fiction tends to help us develop our ability to make models of others and ourselves and to navigate the social world.

This means you can read fiction to...

A Thousand Splendid Suns to open up new worlds in fiction
Fiction opens up new worlds and
perspectives for us to experience, as in
A Thousand Splendid Suns.
  • Better understand what others think and feel, whether in a one-off encounter (bumping into someone at the shop), or in longer-term relationships. 
  • Get better at group interactions, such as parties and meetings at work, by seeing how characters go about it first.
  • Get to know yourself by comparing yourself to characters that you admire (or despise).
  • Envisage a different, multi-cultural and more equal society to the one you currently live in (getting inside the role of a third world citizen, someone of the opposite sex, or a marginalised immigrant, for instance).

Do you want to get better at something, improve your social skills or understand other people more? Try fiction first!

The ideas mentioned in this post are sourced from:
Oatley, Keith. Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

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Wednesday, 21 May 2014

15 Mood-boosting and Feel-good Books for Summer

We could all do with some mood-boosting and feel-good books to enjoy on balmy days over the summer. Including both classics and newer releases, here are some uplifting novels to add to your reading list!

Kabul Beauty School as a feel-good book for Summer 2014
1. The Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

"Kabul Beauty School transcends the feel-good genre largely because of the author's superior storytelling gifts and wicked sense of humor" - New York Times

2. Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

I loved Fay's review of Little Beach Street Bakery on Blog a Book Etc, even though it seems completely different from what I normally choose to read.

Three Men in a Boat as a mood-boosting book for summer

3. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

Don't be put-off by this book's classic status: this tale of a journey down the Thames (with a dog) will make you laugh as much as most modern fiction!

4. The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson 

As the superb sequel to The Hundred-Year-Old Man, Jonas Jonnason doesn't disappoint with his second novel. It's not quite as magical as his first novel, but it's still lighthearted and mood-boosting fiction to keep you turning pages this summer.

Read The Rosie Project to lift low mood

5. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion 

One of my favourite feel-good novels, The Rosie Project is ideal for cheering us up and feeling better about our own lives. Also, I'm incredibly excited that the sequel, The Rosie Effect, will be released this September.

6. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

"When Harold Fry nips out one morning to post a letter, leaving his wife hoovering upstairs, he has no idea that he is about to walk from one end of the country to the other. He has no hiking boots or map, let alone a compass, waterproof or mobile phone. All he knows is that he must keep walking. To save someone else's life."

Pride and Prejudice as the ultimate feel-good fiction

7. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

On Twitter I asked if Pride and Prejudice was best suited to spring or summer, and the answer leaned towards spring. However, I think it's also the ultimate novel to read in the garden during warm summer days.

8. The Poets' Daughters: Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge by Katie Waldegrave

"Drawing on a host of new sources, Katie Waldegrave tells the never-before-told story of how two young women, born into greatness, shaped their own legacies."

9. One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

"I want you to read this book, indeed to read all of Jojo Moyes' books, because they tell truths about modern life. If you're a sentient, empathic, living, breathing human I would urge you to give it a go" - The World Book Night book club

10. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

"Eleanor and Park is completely beautiful. Set in 1986 and full of retro pop culture references, it's a book I want to share with everyone. . . I don't think a single person could read this book and not have their heart melted." - ONCE UPON A BOOKCASE. Her newest novel, Landline, is also due for release this July.

11. The Grace of Crows by Tracy Shawn

This novel is a beautiful tale of one woman's journey to overcome her anxiety, and it really is a great choice if you'd like to worry less and undergo a bit of self-transformation this summer.

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookshop as uplifting reading

12. Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookshop by Robin Sloan 

For bookworms, summer reading isn't the same without a feel-good book about books! "Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a Web-design drone and serendipity coupled with sheer curiosity has landed him a new job working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. And it doesn't take long for Clay to realize that the quiet, dusty book emporium is even more curious than the name suggests..."

13. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

"In this riveting and heart-breaking book, acclaimed author Matthew Quick introduces Leonard Peacock, a hero as warm and endearing as he is troubled. And he shows how just a glimmer of hope can make the world of difference."

The Yorkshire Shepherdess

14. The Yorkshire Shepherdess by Amanda Owen

"In The Yorkshire Shepherdess Amanda Owen describes how the rebellious girl from Huddersfield, who always wanted to be a shepherdess, achieved her dreams. Full of amusing anecdotes and unforgettable characters, the book takes us from fitting in with the locals to fitting in motherhood, from the demands of the livestock to the demands of raising a large family in such a rural backwater."

15. All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

One of my favourite collections of stories, this book never fails to bring me back to my countryside roots when I'm away from home. There are some truly funny anecdotes, alongside some very memorable characters.

Do you think I've missed anything? Share your recommendations for feel-good summer bibliotherapy in the comments!

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Monday, 19 May 2014

Reading Tolstoy as a Twentysomething (& Completing His Major Works Before 21)

Twenty-first birthday flowers

In the last few weeks, I've been very busy reading Tolstoy. I had already enjoyed his most famous works - including Anna Karenina, War and Peace and several collections of his shorter stories - but I decided, probably a little too close to the deadline, that I wanted to finish his major works before I turned 21.

My birthday was yesterday, and I'm very pleased with my reading progress! I've updated my 'Tolstoy Challenge' which I created a year or two ago, but you can also look at my list here:

Tolstoy works completed:

Other short stories by Tolstoy I've read:

  • The Raid (1852) 
  • The Wood-Felling (1855) 
  • Three Deaths (1859) 
  • Polikushka (1863 
  • A Confession (1879) 
  • After the Ball (1903) 
  • The Forged Coupon (1911) 
  • Two Hussars (1856)
  • God Sees the Truth But Waits (1872)
  • The Three Hermits (1886)

Other Tolstoy texts on the reading list:

  • The Cossacks  (1863) (in progress)
  • What is Art? (1897) (in progress)
  • How Much Land Does a Man Need? (1886)
  • The Sebastopol Sketches (1855)

I've gained so many life lessons through this reading experience, and I'm going to dedicate a post to this in the next week or two. I'm also very tempted to rate the books in order of enjoyment, although this could prove quite difficult!

Do you enjoy reading the major works of a single author? If you're thinking about trying it, look into Twyla Tharp's reading habits by reading The Creative Habit, or check out my post on her concept of reading archeologically! It's a fascinating method to really get to know an author and their work, and it's particularly interesting when the author changes a great deal during their lifetime (as is the case with Tolstoy).

Keep tuned for more on Tolstoy!

My collection of Tolstoy's novels, essays and short stories

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Friday, 16 May 2014

Facing Death With Poetry: How Chidiock Tichborne Wrote His Own Elegy

Chidiock Tichborne
Chidiock Tichborne, writer of his own Elegy and
conspirator of the Babington Plot.
Chidiock Tichborne's Elegy, the first poem mentioned in the Poems That Make Grown Cry anthology, caught me completely by surprise.

Reading it prompted one of those rare moments where you stop, look up from the page, and ponder what you've just read. I'd say this was partly due to the unimaginable circumstances under which the Elegy was written, but also because of the moving introduction by David McVicar in Anthony and Ben Holden's anthology.

Tichborne, McVicar tells us, was a conspirator in the 1586 Babington Plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I and rescue Mary Stuart from captivity. Imprisoned and at the hand of the courts, Tichborne wrote a letter to his wife, Agnes, just days before he was to receive his punishment.

Within the letter was a poem he compiled to reflect on his situation, his Elegy, and, just days later, he was executed.

Knowing this background makes a modern reading of Tichborne's Elegy so moving and poignant, regardless of whether you view its author as a terrorist, a martyr, or simply a man about to face a hideous punishment.

His Elegy isn't simply a reflection on life, but rather the thoughts of a real person about to have his life cut short. We realise that Tichborne hasn't yet had a change to live properly: he's not ready to accept death, and - as a young man who should have his life ahead of him - this is completely just.

In his remaining days, if not hours, of existence, Tichborne turns to art not only as catharsis, but also to create a legacy for his short existence.

Tychbornes Elegie, written with his owne hand in the Tower before his execution

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of paine,
My Crop of corne is but a field of tares,
And al my good is but vaine hope of gaine.
The day is past, and yet I saw no sunne,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

My tale was heard, and yet it was not told,
My fruite is falne, & yet my leaves are greene:
My youth is spent, and yet I am not old,
I saw the world, and yet I was not seene.
My thred is cut, and yet it is not spunne,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

I sought my death, and found it in my wombe,
I lookt for life, and saw it was a shade:
I trod the earth, and knew it was my Tombe,
And now I die, and now I was but made.
My glasse is full, and now my glasse is runne,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

After reading this poem constructed under the most horrendous of circumstances, I can't help but cultivate gratitude and be thankful for my own life. Poetry, life and death really do go hand in hand, don't they?

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Thursday, 15 May 2014

A Few Words on My Writing and Reading Schedule

I've been making an effort to write more blog articles recently, hoping to publish a new piece every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This is providing my daily routine with a bit of structure; I enjoy having topics to research, write about, and mull over for a day or two.

This summer seems to be the perfect opportunity to work on my blog's content, learn new things, and develop my writing skills. After all, from September I'll be thrown back into university life with all the essays and research tasks that come with it... it seems right to be prepared!

So, do expect quite a lot of articles from me over the next few months, most of which will be varied and creative angles (verging on unusual) on topics and books that interest me.

If you'd like to keep up-to-date, consider adding Tolstoy Therapy to your feed reader (I've fallen for Feedly), or subscribing by email. I've decided to start a weekly newsletter, so do sign up if you're interested in getting a weekly-roundup of my posts (and a favourite article or two from elsewhere on the web). To subscribe, click here or find the form on the left.

I'm focusing more on topics than book reviews, but you can always keep an eye on my Goodreads page for ratings of what I've been enjoying.

Just quickly:

  • Sharing and recommending my writing to others - whether on social media, through email, or even offline - can mean as much as a comment (especially if you enjoyed an article but are running low on time).
  • Because I'm prioritising reading and writing, I'm spending less time on social media. I see tweets and mentions on my phone, but sometimes messages sneak past without me replying to them. If you'd like to get in touch with me...
  • I do always reply to emails (even if sometimes I get a bit behind). Contact lucy[at] or use my comment form.

Once again, thank you to everyone who reads Tolstoy Therapy!

My to-read pile, featuring The Secret History and A Feast for Crows
The to-be-read pile (well, one of them).

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Monday, 12 May 2014

Why Do We Enjoy Reading Fiction? (Fiction on the Brain, Part I)

Reasons why we enjoy reading fiction
Woman Reading in a Garden by Mary Cassatt

Why do we enjoy reading fiction? It seems like a simple question to answer; a question that's not really worth asking at all, perhaps. However, Keith Oatley's fascinating Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction doesn't leave such matters unturned.

I've explored Oatley's ideas before (here and in my ebook), and his superb interpretations of fiction and psychology couldn't be more interesting. Because of this, I've decided to write a series of articles - let's call it Fiction on the Brain - to explore the theories and research on the links between fiction and the brain.

Through my weekly instalments, I'll aim to make the psychology of reading as accessible as possible to you, touching on issues such as: how fiction can improve our social skills, why reading can be good for us, and how literature moves us emotionally.

To start with, let's consider why we enjoy reading fiction in the first place. 

The main reasons considered by Oatley include:

  1. Fiction is the natural transition from childhood play. Both play and fiction are activities that we can engage with and express wishes through.
  2. Exploration is in our genes, and fiction is a superb way to use these detective skills of ours.
  3. Our genes make play, and therefore reading fiction, enjoyable because they help us be interactive and manage our emotions.
  4. We do what we're good at, and we're naturally good at considering the perspectives of others and getting inside a new role.

Let's go into these a little further.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry as feel-good fiction
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold
Fry was the 9th bestseller last year.

Could the reason be in our genes?

1. Exchanging childhood play for fiction

During childhood, we probably all wished to be something else: a fairy, an astronaut, or perhaps a grown-up. Oatley describes how childhood play is an expression of wishes: wishing to be someone else and then pretending to be this person.

Rather than giving it up as we grow up, our expression of wishes transmutates. Oatley uses a teaching by Freud to explain this: we generally don't give up our pleasures; rather, we exchange them for something equally pleasurable.

In this case, as we bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood, we exchange childhood play for activities that derive from it, such as fiction, sports and the arts. When reading a novel, we can identify with a protagonist and take on their role (just like we did during childhood play).

2. Maybe it's in our genes

When playing games as children, we were likely to be engaged with the activity, enjoying it, and - most of the time - exploring. Whether playing hide and seek or creating a den outdoors, exploring is a great part of childhood play.

Exploration is pretty important, too, and we could even say that children play because it's hardwired in our brains. After all, by exploring we have discovered new places, created life-changing inventions, and become healthier and stronger people.

As we grow older and stop playing around in the childlike sense, we explore in new ways. One way of letting our inner-explorer loose is by reading fiction.

The Fault in Our Stars
The Fault in Our Stars was the 17th
bestseller of 2013. Could the friendships
 we form with its characters be key to this?

3. We're social creatures

Similar to how our genes made sweet things enjoyable because they were likely to keep us healthy and safe many years back, Oatley states that perhaps we find fiction enjoyable because it helps us acquire social skills and manage our emotions.

As we enjoy fiction, we form symbolic friendships with characters and narrators. We learn from their decisions and mistakes, and we may even adopt their dreams for ourselves. 

One brilliant point that Oatley makes - which I'm sure you will agree with - is that readers tend to enjoy forming 'literary friendships' because they're free from the damaging possibilities which sometimes bother us in reality. When we pick up a novel, we connect with others on our own terms, and we don't go away worrying "what will they think of me?" 

4. We like to consider the perspectives of others

Such Stuff as Dreams also considers Liza Zunshine's proposal (Why We Read Fiction, 2006) for why we enjoy fiction: that we are good at working out what other people are up to. Zunshine suggests that because we enjoy what we are good at, we enjoy fiction.

An author will give us some details about a character, but there's much left unsaid (particularly, for instance, in detective fiction such as the Sherlock Holmes stories). To remedy this, we enter into what Oatley describes as our 'theory-of-mind processes' (skills that we've been developing since our early years of play), and, in entering the minds of others, we edge towards intimacy with them.

Fiction on the brain
Woman Reading in a Forest by Gyula Benczúr (1875)

The ideas mentioned in this post are sourced from:
Oatley, Keith. Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Keep tuned for more Fiction on the Brain, an article about Robert Frost, and to see whether I finish Tolstoy's major works before my 21st birthday.

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Friday, 9 May 2014

Poems That Make Grown Men Cry by Anthony and Ben Holden (and My Own Choice)

Stephen Fry's choice for Poems That Make Grown Men Cry
Stephen Fry is just one public figure to contribute in Poems That Make Grown Men Cry by Anthony and Ben Holden.

I was thrilled to hear about Poems That Make Grown Men Cry by Anthony and Ben Holden a few weeks ago in The Guardian. The book is essentially what it says on the tin: an anthology consisting of stories from '100 men on the words that move them'.

After selecting "Adlestrop" by Edward Thomas (surely my favourite poet) for the book, Simon Winchester removed any doubts I had about buying the hardback (one of those expensive ones), and I went ahead and ordered it.

Partnering with Amnesty International, the Holdens (father and son) have done well to get such prominent figures on board with the book. Nick Cave, Stephen Fry, Colin Firth, Ian McEwan and Daniel Radcliffe are just a few of the men involved, and the book provides such a wonderful insight into the lives of each contributor.

I felt quite nosy flicking through the book. Finding out which poems make such familiar figures cry (or become close to it) is almost unsettling. It's certainly not what you're used to finding out in newspapers or interviews, but it's fascinating to hear such personal revelations.

Some contributors have lost children, others, as the inlay states, are moved to tears by the way a poet captures, in Alexander Pope's words, "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd".

What about the ladies?

Poems That Make Grown Men Cry by Anthony and Ben Holden
Is there a poem that makes you cry?

You may be shaking your head at how women are ignored in this anthology. However, I don't really see it that way. Twelve female poets are chosen by the 100 men (fair enough, it could be more), and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer provides the afterword.

Also, the acknowledgements have much to say on the question. After acknowledging that the book may be accused of sexism, Amnesty International states that:

  1. The book directly addresses the assumption that women are more emotional (or weaker) than men
  2. The emotional honesty of these 100 men (ones we tend to think of as successful and influential) is a healthy contrast to the behaviour that most societies expect of men.

The anthology is put together by a father and son, resulting in something that does have a brotherly and perhaps masculine feel to it, but it's certainly readable for all.

And there's nothing stopping us all from thinking about the poems that provoke the greatest emotional response in ourselves. Here's my own answer to the question...

The poem that makes a grown woman cry:

Although I often had to study it at school, "Blackberry Picking" by Seamus Heaney is still a favourite poem of mine. It speaks to me of my childhood; of growing up in the English countryside with my family still together in the house that we built. To me it's about childhood innocence and the bliss of it, but soon getting to the age where you realise it can't last. It's an emotional poem for me, but one I think of fondly, particularly upon reaching the following lines:

You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.

You can read "Blackberry Picking" here, or hear it read on YouTube by Seamus Heaney himself, who sadly died in August of last year.

Are there any poems that make you cry?

A note to reader: reading Poems That Make Grown Men Cry has given me ideas for an excessive amount of articles, so do expect more on poetry and our emotional response coming up.

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Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Literary Larks: 3 Writers on Why We Should Wake Early

Why I Wake Early: Mary Oliver
Why I Wake Early: Mary Oliver's ode to
dawn and starting the day outside.
When it comes to mornings, we're all very divided. While some us of leap out of bed without any need for an alarm clock, others aren't quite so keen.

This is normal, researchers assure us: being a night owl or morning lark may be largely dictated by a gene known as Period-3. Scientists at the University of Surrey discovered there are two versions of this gene — a long version and a short version. Those with the long version are larks; the short version, owls. If you always eat breakfast within half an hour of waking, you're probably a lark.

By looking at the brilliant Brain Pickings infographic of famous writers' sleep habits, we can see that Haruki Murkami, Twyla Tharp and Vladimir Nabokov were larks (waking up at 4am, 5.30am and 6am respectively).

Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Scott Fitzgerald were probably night owls (waking at 9am, 10am and 11am).

But let's focus on one side in this post.

Here are three writers with good things to say about waking up early, each focusing on how it relates to productivity, greeting the day at perhaps its most beautiful point, or starting the day right.

Emily Brontë

Waking up early may well help you out if you find yourself procrastinating or not achieving what you'd like to. As Mrs. Dean cleverly states in Wuthering Heights,

You shouldn't lie till ten. There's the very prime of the morning gone long before that time. A person who has not done one-half his day's work by ten o'clock, runs a chance of leaving the other half undone.

I know I should pay attention to this advice: I work so well first thing in the morning.

Nature is one reason to wake up early
The Yorkshire moors, home to Wuthering Heights

Mary Oliver

When finding books on waking up early, Mary Oliver's collection Why I Wake Early can't help but come to mind. It's a superb series of poems on the beauty of dawn and greeting the day in nature.

The opening poem, of the same name as the anthology, starts as follows:
Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who made the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips...

The poem then culminates in this wonderful phrase: "Watch, now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness."

You can hear Mary Oliver read the full poem here, on YouTube.

Lemony Snicket 

Finally, Lemony Snicket, the author of the Series of Unfortunate Events books for children, states in Horseradish, his quotation book of "wit and wisdom":

Horseradish by Lemony Snicket and getting up early
Horseradish by Lemony Snicket 
Morning is an important time of day, because how you spend your morning can often tell you what kind of day you are going to have. For instance, if you wake up to the sound of twittering birds, and find yourself in an enormous canopy bed, with a butler standing next to you holding a breakfast of freshly made muffins and hand-squeezed orange juice on a silver tray, you will know that your day will be a splendid one. If you wake up to the sound of church bells, and find yourself in a fairly big regular bed, with a butler standing next to you holding a breakfast of hot tea and toast on a plate, you will know that your day will be O.K. And if you wake up to the sound of somebody banging two metal pots together, and find yourself in a small bunk bed, with a nasty foreman standing in the doorway holding no breakfast at all, you will know that your day will be horrid.

For more uplifting and cheery quotes, Horseradish really is full of quotable goodies.

Putting it into action

Perhaps the best guide to waking up early - or at least my favourite - is by the talented Leo Babauta from Zen Habits.

For the lifelong night owls, you'll feel less ignored after checking out B-Society, a Danish group founded by Camilla Kring which is aiming to make society more flexible when it comes to rising early.

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Monday, 5 May 2014

Tolstoy on the Importance of Books and Literacy in Prisons

"When you are free you don't have such a painful desire to read as you have in prison. You can get any book at home, in the shops or from the internet. In prison books become the air. Your body needs air to breathe. No books – you cannot breathe. And if you cannot breathe there is no life."
- Belarusian journalist Iryna Khalip, who was detained for criticising her country's regime, now contributing to the campaign against banning books in UK prisons

Tolstoy's belief in education and learning for all
Leo Tolstoy, an author committed to education and
literacy for all, would certainly condemn the UK
restrictions on prisoners receiving books.
Over the last few months, countless artists, writers and readers have spoken out against 'book bans' in UK prisons. New rules, which came into force last November, now prevent prisoners from receiving parcels from outside, including books and magazine subscriptions, unless for 'exceptional circumstances'.

In an article by The Guardian, one prisoner, who was about to start a distance learning course, states: "A friend of mine has done all these courses and is fully qualified and was going to send me all his books but we can't have books sent in any more."

When thinking about this unfathomable decision by the British prison system, Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy can be seen as key reading.

It's perhaps not a surprise that Tolstoy believed firmly in the redemptive qualities of reading for prisoners, what with the school he set up on Yasnaya Polyana, his estate, in order to increase literacy among peasants, and the work he did to reform Russian education and literacy rates.

The protagonist of Resurrection, Nekhlyudov, a character keen to find redemption by helping others, is forbidden from giving textbooks to a political prisoner for the sake of furthering his education. In protest, his argument with the prison general goes as follows:

'He needs textbooks. He wants to study.'
'Don't you believe it.' The general paused. 'They're not for studying. This is trouble-making.'
'But surely they need something to pass the time in their awful situation,' said Nekhlyudov.
'They never stop complaining. [...] They have comforts here that are not usually available in prisons.'

The general goes on to say by way of an excuse,
'They are given books with a spiritual content, and old periodicals. We have a library of suitable books. But they don't read much. At first they show some sort of interest, but very soon you'll find new books with half the pages uncut, and old ones with the pages unturned. We once ran a test,' said the general with something distantly resembling a smile, 'by inserting slips of paper. They never got moved. [...] Anyway, they soon settle down. They start off by being a bit restless, but it's not long before they're putting on weight, and they end up quite placid,' said the general, totally unaware of the sinister significance of his words.

Tolstoy wasn't the only author aware of the importance of books in prisons. Think of the well-read Abbé Faria in The Count of Monte Cristo, one of the greatest mentors in literature, who writes his masterwork, the Treatise on the Prospects for a General Monarchy in Italy, while imprisoned.

Brooks from The Shawshank Redemption and his library
Brooks from The Shawshank Redemption: a character who reinforces the crucial role that books play in prisons.

On a similar note, think of the library in The Shawshank Redemption film (you may remember its mention of Alexandre Dumas); a space of learning, hope and friendship which blooms and expands as the film progresses. When Andy Dufrasne threatens to reveal the scams going on within the warden's office, it's interesting to consider what's at the centre of the warden's threat:

The library? Gone... sealed off, brick-by-brick. We'll have us a little book barbecue in the yard. They'll see the flames for miles. We'll dance around it like wild Injuns! You understand me? Catching my drift?... Or am I being obtuse?

Books have long been at the centre of the prison system, for reasons of entertainment, education and transformation. Anyone who has read a book and felt changed as a result can relate to this. Therefore, perhaps it could only be a lack of reading on behalf of the decision makers and prison boards that could lead to such a rule being put in place.

This quote by Tolstoy, written over a century ago in Resurrection, worryingly seems as relevant today as it did upon publication:

'Where's the sense in using prison for a man who has already become corrupted by idleness or bad example, and keeping him in conditions of guaranteed or enforced idleness, rubbing shoulders with other men even more corrupt than he is?'

Prisons are where we need books most, and preventing their distribution is a cruel prevention of basic human liberty. Here's to hoping the UK prison system can pause to read, think and reconsider.

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