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Reading therapy

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Maggie Jones
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We like to settle into winter the way runners settle into a marathon — keep a steady pace, breathe deeply and don’t on any account think about the distance we still have to go. We all have our own coping mechanisms for the winter months, and reading therapy is one of mine.

The Victorians were great readers, having no television to while away the winter evenings. Most middle-class Victorian families had servants, and everyone except the servants had time on their hands. So, they read a lot, and they wanted books that would fill up the time. Authors were happy to write them, not least because they were usually paid by the word or the page. Dickens, Thackeray, Hardy and the rest routinely published novels of 8 or 900 pages or more, to say nothing of Monsieur Proust with his mind-numbing 3,000 pages, which, to add insult to injury, he wrote entirely in French. In the modern age, with so many distractions and our Twitter-sized attention spans, these hefty volumes are a challenge. My wife, who is made of sterner stuff, is reading Proust’s great novel in the original right now, but my doctor has advised me not to try this.

I can claim to have read and finished Middlemarch by George Eliot (904 pages) and The Way we live Now by Anthony Trollope (844 pages), but they left me feeling as though I had run two marathons. I just don’t have that good old Victorian stamina. Nor do I have any servants. They are both fine books, but the stories evolve at such a stately pace that it’s hard to remember the complicated plots and all the characters when the reading must be spread out over a period of weeks in fragmented intervals between the interruptions of modern life. How delightful it must have been to simply sit and read, knowing that dinner would be prepared, the carpets swept and the children cared for without any effort on your part.

Everyone loves a good story, but it needs to come to an end before we forget why we started it. Yet sometimes one good story inspires another, and another, and another, until we have that most satisfying of all fictional experiences, a series of books telling connected stories that can be absorbed one at a time. A series can be addictive without being overwhelming. We can spread our reading over weeks, or even years, without ever losing interest or forgetting the story, because the story is always new while the characters are always the same. They become friends, co-conspirators in our bid to escape our own mundane reality.

Finding a series of books that we love is like discovering a second life. The characters and settings become as real as those in our own lives, and perhaps more so. Every year I give myself the gift of the historical novels of Patrick O’Brian — more than 6,000 pages covering 15 years of history during which the forces of the tyrant Napoleon were finally defeated, as was only right. I can easily get through all 20 books by this time next year, then return to volume one. That’s as good as therapy, and it’s a lot cheaper, because I already have all the books.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.