Reading books causes very different reactions in people. Books can have negative or positive side effects. Politically speaking, books are the most influential actors in human history: they have created religions, nations, and ideologies. The books of Marx and Engels alone are responsible for the death of 100 million people in the 20th century.
However, if you are merely looking for a way to divert your thoughts away from the troubling times you are finding yourself in, the effects are likely to be less drastic.
Some books can be depressing
Of course, they can still be negative. I’m not going to lie: some books are downright depressing. Some of my favourite books chronicle the collapse of dreams or the decline of some of the greatest civilizations – with all their art and pageantry – that humanity has ever known.
For example, Thucydides and his Peloponnesian War should not be read if one is worried about the pandemic swirling all around us. In Book II, a plague strikes Athens. There are no cures, certainly no vaccines, and many die. The symptoms are described in nauseating detail: extreme body heat, fevers, unending thirst, boils, dry heaves, and vomiting. Thucydides himself lives through the plague, only to describe the decline and fall of Athens. Although he does not cause such an emotion in me, I can imagine how Thucydides can bring out the anxiety in some.
Reading can alleviate anxiety
This does not mean, however, that reading cannot alleviate anxiety. Books have a special power to draw us out of our day-to-day lives and pull us into a higher realm of imagination and thought.
I have always found certain books and authors calming. The historian Gibbon is an author I always turn to when exam time rolls around. For a man describing the most horrible of subjects – the gradual decline and fall of the Roman and Byzantine empires – Gibbon was an optimist. It was Gibbon’s belief that even after all the plagues and violence had wrenched humanity from its course in enlightenment, that the gains in culture, science, and manners would never perish from the face of the earth.
Reading can help us find pleasure in difficult times
These are trying times, but if a right book or author can be found, they can also be rewarding. As stated by Samuel Johnson, “Life admits not of delays; when pleasure can be had, it is fit to catch it. Every hour takes away part of the things that please us, and perhaps part of our disposition to be pleased”.