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Reading isolation whilst in isolation causes more isolation

- but one that’s better than the isolation imposed by Boris.

Writing by Kirsty Thomson. Illustration by Antonia Popescu.

Many of us during this period of lockdown and isolation have turned to books and films to get us through. In a way it is interesting that we turn to these things; books in particular have long been considered a solitary act, isolating the reader and bringing them inwards to a space where they can escape the world they are living in. It is even more interesting then, that I have chosen over the last few months to read books which are about isolation and mental health - surrounding myself in an endless loop of isolation upon isolation.

The Yellow Wallpaper. The Bell Jar. The Trick is to Keep on Breathing.

Three books, written in very different times and by very different women. What ties them together? The way in which they explore the experience of mental health and the way in which living with a mental health problem causes the individual to isolate themselves from loved ones, from those with whom they work, and from the things they once enjoyed - much like the life we all have been going through the last few months, cooped up in our homes, daily life brought to a standstill. What purpose do these books have, and why is reading about these subjects so important? Why too is reading itself an isolating experience, and what can be gained from it? So many questions. Good thing we now have a lot of time on our hands.

C.S Lewis once wrote ‘we read to know we are not alone’ which whilst true is somewhat peculiar; for hundreds of years with the slow decline in public oratory and the telling of stories aloud, we as a civilization have made reading very much a solo experience. We tend to read things by ourselves, often in a quiet environment and processing the words in our heads. Lewis is right, though; stories have the power to keep memories alive across space and time, reminding us of what it means to be human. In our separation through reading, we connect through our shared understanding, interpretation and appreciation of the text. Reading alone comes with its own set of joys; you can take yourself on an adventure and escape the normality of everyday mundane life. Our joy in our favourite stories was first and foremost built upon the way they impacted us as individuals; whilst reading has implications on society as a whole, it starts by affecting us on a personal level.

Reading in itself is an isolating experience; reading about isolation by default is even more isolating. I remember the first time I read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. I was going through a difficult period in my life and through my reading of someone else’s story of struggle, I felt a recognition. Not only was I seeing her and her experiences, but she too was seeing me. In that moment, I was both the one being recognised and the one recognising the other. It was much the same reading Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper - whilst it was for class and I knew I would be reading it as part of a group, there was something very personal about the text. I felt as though I was even more in a world as an individual compared to other books I had read before.

Many of us fear isolation, and with good reason. These three texts illustrate the depths one can reach with too much time spent alone. They also highlight the importance of being at peace with your own company. That’s what makes reading them so important. The practice of reading isolating material brings a multitude of emotions, most good but some difficult to process. Reading The Trick is to Keep on Breathing, I would shift from laughing to crying within a single page turn. All three of these books made me look within myself on a level greater than any book had done previously; they made me feel a sense of togetherness and mutual understanding in my isolation and showed me that sometimes, it is okay to be alone.

Reading about mental health is so important not only because it helps you to process your own issues, but also because of the way in which it can feed empathy towards others. And although reading is something which we most often do alone, it is through reading that we can understand the world around us and those who inhabit it with us.

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