Literature has the power to whisk readers away to faraway places, which is a lot further than they are getting at the moment due to stay-at-home orders and curfews.
Elizabeth Hewitt, an associate professor in the Department of English specializing in pre-1900 American literature, said that reading acts as a form of escapism that shows readers how to look at the world in different ways.
“Literature is so wonderful because you’re dropped into a new world,” she said. “You have to experience perspectives that are entirely different from your own.”
Robert Schumaker Jr., a master of fine arts student in poetry, also sees literature’s role as escapism both in and beyond a pandemic. He said as he grew older, he turned to literature more as a need for human empathy.
“Literature connects us to our innate human power to be empathetic, and literature can teach us how to care for each other,” he said. “It’s at least my hope that it’s going to connect people more.”
Michelle Herman, a creative writing professor in the Department of English, said writing is beneficial to process one’s emotions and feelings. While any creative expression enhances people’s lives, Herman said writing is special because language is something everyone shares.
“It’s a way of drilling down into the privacy of your own imagination, thoughts and emotions; that is one positive thing that we can kind of hang on to,” Herman said. “If you try to write and you find that it’s helpful at all to do that, then I would fling myself at it.”
Lately, Herman said she has felt uncertain whether or not reading would bring any comfort, but when she went to bed with Anne Tyler’s “Redhead by the Side of the Road,” she devoured three-quarters of it.
“I think the secret for me is going to be books that I can just fall headlong into, which is what happened with Anne Tyler,” Herman said. “She has been reliable for that for me ever since she published her first book, and I was relieved to see that yes, it’s still true.”
She described Tyler’s novels to be part of a unique category of easy-to-read literary fiction that focuses on exploring the human condition, character and language rather than plot.
“They’re the kinds of books that you just start reading and then you want to read right through to the end,” she said.
Herman said she turned to poetry during other difficult times in her life but now finds the focus poetry requires to be unappealing during current circumstances.
“I don’t want to focus,” she said. “I want to go back to reading the way I read as a child, which is curled up in a chair escaping from the world.”
Through an online book club, Schumaker said he reads fifteen pages of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” each day with his partner. He said he has found the practice of chipping away at such a large book — which explores mortality and the human condition — to be grounding right now.
“I like turning to longer bodies of work during hard and challenging times, but I’m also just as likely to spend an afternoon bingeing listicles, like trashy media too,” he said.
Schumaker said he recommends that people turn to any books that bring them joy right now.
“I think we can always turn to literature, to see how people have handled this in the past or in fiction to talk about illness, disease, death and grief — really hard things about the human experience,” Schumaker said.