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.




Book Report: Recent Reads

Even in these trying times, when it seems every day brings another depressing news item that highlights the hurtful divisions in our society, I can still take comfort in good books. It can’t fail to make me happy when I discover new favorite authors or series, or when old favorites remind me why they’re favorites. In the last months I’ve read one of each kind that stands out. (Warning: Spoilers likely.)

Age of Swords (Michael J. Sullivan)

This is one of my new favorite series, not because it has especially breathtaking prose or complex world-building, but because it’s packed full of so many of the things I hope to find in epic fantasy. I praised the previous book in the series, Age of Myth, in another post a few months back, for its sympathetic depictions of female authority and its portrayal of friendship between women. That book must be read first, but the sequel takes these already pleasing elements and turns them up to eleven. Persephone, the woman whom we saw rise to the position of chieftain in the last book, grows and evolves as a leader, making mistakes but learning from them and ultimately triumphing. Suri, the young mage, discovers her capabilities with guidance from her Fhrey mentor Arion (another active and interesting female character), and in the end pulls off some impressive day-saving moves. Also, Moya the archer, Brin the historian, and Roan the engineer, noteworthy but fairly minor characters in the last book, become major players in this one. Roan even gets to invent the wheel!

While I love that the ladies dominate the scene, some of the chapters I found most intriguing were told from the perspective of the villain, the Fhrey prince Manawydule, who is desperate to avenge himself on the human race after the death of his mentor in the last book. Through him, Sullivan paints a portrait of radicalization, as he falls in with a group who plan to overthrow the current Fhrey power structure and replace it with a new order in which their race will dominate and all others be brought under subjection. At a time when hate groups are dominating the news more than they have in decades, this story should be told.

A solid four stars.

Time of the Dark (Barbara Hambly)

Hambly has been a favorite author of mine ever since I read The Ladies of Mandrigyn some years back. Time of the Dark, the first of Hambly’s “Darwath” series, has a lot of what I’ve come to expect from her work: strong, involving prose, good conflict, and a brave and capable woman at or near its center. Yet my response to this book ended up being a little more complicated than my love for Ladies and its sequels, Stranger at the Wedding, and Bride of the Rat God.

I’ve always found Hambly to be a feminist-friendly writer, and while I wouldn’t call this exactly an exception, I couldn’t help noticing a more conservative streak in this novel that I hadn’t observed in the other Hambly books. First is the use of a highly old-school trope, the male Chosen One. In this portal fantasy, a young man, Rudy, and woman, Gil, from modern-day California are pulled into the fantasy realm of Darwath because they’re meant to save it, and they must figure out this strange new place and their responsibilities in it. Their learning curve is fascinating, to be sure, but in the end, even though Gil is introduced first, Rudy turns out to be the important one, the heir to the wizard Ingold’s magic and the key world-saver. In the very last pages, poor Gil is left to wonder just why the heck she’s there. The good news (I hope): this is only the first book in the series, so maybe we’ll see Gil discover her purpose in the later volumes.

More problematic, for me, is the contrast set up between Gil, the scholar-turned-warrior, and Alde, the Madonna-like widowed queen with whom Rudy falls in love. If Gil represents the way forward in SFF heroines, a precursor to Hambly’s own Starhawk, Alde comes to us straight from the old school, a woman whose importance rests on being the widow of the last King and the mother of the future one, with little power or skill of her own. It’s to Hambly’s credit that she is able to endow her with a personality, a dash of courage and even a touch of humor. The trouble with Alde is that she’s living proof of the persistence of traditional gender roles in a society where women can fight in the Guard and even hold leadership positions in the church (though the only example we see of the latter is 100% pure evil, so that’s not much of a positive). Women are tougher than men, Alde tells Rudy; “we have to be, to take care of children.” So even if other roles are open, the main business of women’s lives is still, or should be, children. Also, while Alde is written as warm and sweet, almost an ideal, Gil, supposedly our heroine, is presented as deficient, lacking some vital internal component, describing herself as “the woman who doesn’t love” — as if the truly good women are the motherly ones, while those who follow other paths have questionable priorities.

Yet as I mentioned before, this is only the beginning of a series. A lot can happen in two more books.

A slightly disappointed 3.5 stars.