Each quarter I ask my Freshman Composition students to tell me what they see as the value of reading. While several of them tell me honestly that they’re “not much of a reader” and they can’t recall the last book they enjoyed, I always get some good answers — expansion of knowledge and awareness of the world, expansion of vocabulary, etc. And there’s always at least one who says something like this: “I know it’s lame, but we read to escape.”
I know it’s lame…
Students always seem so darned apologetic when they give this response. They’ve been told often enough, though perhaps not in so many words, that escape is the least productive, least valuable reason for reading. The word escapism is rarely spoken without a judgmental wrinkle of the nose. When critics and other arbiters of quality want to call a story shallow and/or meaningless, they often dub it “escapist trash,” or, if they’re feeling a bit generous, “escapist fun.” Of course the fantasy genre, the genre I love to read and write, is not infrequently dismissed entirely as “escapism.”
I want to reclaim that word, wipe it clean of its negative taint. I’m quick to tell those apologetic students they should never be ashamed of reading to escape, and I let them know I’m an avid fantasy reader. Escapism has value the critics may not be able to wrap their minds around. Indeed, I think this sad, confusing world we live in would be better off if more people, at least once in a while, embraced escapism.
Escapism might be loosely defined as “to get out of one’s own head, or to get away from one’s own problems.” Those who decry it have the idea that “get away from” is synonymous with “avoid” or “hide from,” but is this necessarily the case? I think of it as akin to what dean of science fiction Isaac Asimov calls “the Eureka Phenomenon.” In his essay of the same name, he explains that when he’s beset by writer’s block, he puts his notebook down and goes out to the movies. As he gains some distance from his story, more often than not, a good idea will come to him. In getting away from his problem, he finds a solution for it. Why shouldn’t an ordinary person’s escape from the stresses of daily life into a well-written piece of fiction have a similar effect?
Readers choose many different kinds of stories to escape into, and while those stories may not necessarily inspire us with the exact solutions to our problems, they offer something almost as good — perspective. Some of us choose light, breezy, humorous reads, like Janet Evanovich’s “Stephanie Plum” series, which makes my husband laugh (and laugh) when he reads them. (He also laughs at Deadpool comics, but I digress.) As we laugh with these stories, we may find the wisdom to laugh at ourselves and our frustrations. Others of us choose darker, grimmer worlds, such as the Westeros created by George R.R. Martin, and in traversing those worlds we may find our own situations far less bleak than they might be. While we’re escaping, we’re also learning from how the characters solve, or fail to solve, the difficulties they face, and we’re also consuming a vital antidote to self-absorption or “poor me”-ism. The latter is something we could surely all use from time to time.
Another worthwhile aspect of escapism is the chance to step into the consciousness of others, both the author of the book and the characters s/he creates. Some years back I asked a student who claimed she hated to read, “Haven’t you ever wanted to become someone else for a little while?” She answered flatly, “No.” This may have been a sign of how comfortable she was in her own skin, but I can’t help finding it one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard a student say. When we become someone else, we may grow in understanding, of others and ourselves.
When I was first in college, I noticed something about myself. None of the pictures I painted of the life I wanted included me bearing children. I simply couldn’t see myself as a mom, and I came to realize that maternal instinct, often presumed as “natural” in women, was missing in me. When I told my parents about it, they did not, then or afterwards, try to talk me into having children. The alienating pressure came from outside, from a world that told me time and again that something was wrong with me. “Oh, you’ll change your mind” — unless, of course, you’re evil.
While I was coming to terms with this, I saw Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun for the first time, and entered the world of southside Chicago in the 1950s and the lives of an African-American family therein. I found myself imprinting on Beneatha, the daughter of the house, who aspired to be a doctor and had to deal with a mother and sister-in-law who burst out laughing when she told them, “I’m not interested in who I want to marry yet — if I ever get married.” From Beneatha’s words, and her sticking to her ambitions despite ridicule and outright disapproval, I could take a particle of strength for myself, a tiny gift from Hansberry. That particle helped me resist the pressure to take a path I knew in my heart wasn’t right for me. I stepped onto common ground with a character who, on the surface, could not be more different from me. Our similarities meant more to me than our differences. Discovering such similarities, such common ground, can strengthen and expand our capacity for empathy.
These days, empathy seems in woefully short supply. We see signs of its lack everywhere, particularly in what I’ve come to call “selective outrage” — that is, “It’s only a tragedy/problem when it happens to People Like Me.” We see it when a corporate lawyer claims that the victims of the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas don’t deserve sympathy because they were at a country music festival, and country music fans are supposedly all “gun-toting Republicans.” (Sure, just like all fans of classical music are supervillains.) We see it when our current president responds with indifference to the plight of the victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. We see it when people’s reaction to terrorist attacks depends on the race, religion, and/or ethnicity of the terrorists and victims. We see it when comments on the Internet reveal less outrage at Hollywood ex-producer Harvey Weinstein’s appalling treatment of women than at his victims’ “cowardice” at not coming forward sooner, failing utterly to take into account the hell that too often awaits women when they do come forward. “They’re not like me, so what happens to them doesn’t matter.” Those who still wonder how the Holocaust could have happened have only to look around.
One thing that can help bridge the gulfs between us is escapism, the willingness to leave ourselves behind and step into another person’s shoes, see through another character’s eyes. Whether that other is a conscientious leader, a persecuted mage, or a misunderstood monster, every time we let ourselves feel with him/her, we’re reaching across a divide, something we could all stand to practice.
We need escapism. And we need it now.
Maybe, more than ever.