In 2023, may the secret to happiness turn out to be books!

There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth. —Doris Lessing

May I go out on a limb here and declare that I am happy?

Yes, I am, which is not to say I have no problems because I have plenty. I can’t say, either, that I am fulfilled. My days stretch out and I’m constantly entertaining the idea that I am not even half of the best I can or should be. Regrets, I have a few—who doesn’t?—but none that keep me up all night. As for the future, more often than not, I dread it. I’m not insured against it. I’m not even half-prepared for it. But ask me if I’m happy, I’ll say yes.

I have fears, I have sorrows, I have things that I hate, or things I am guilty about, or people who may never love me, but I’m happy.

Ask me how this is so, and I’d attribute it in part to reading. That’s no joke, nor am I overstretching the truth here. I seriously think I am happy in spite of all my troubles because I’ve been blessed with a love for reading. Because maybe 99 percent of the books I’ve read I read for pleasure, even Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, which I read before high school, before it became required reading.

FRIENDS FOREVER Winnie the Pooh and Piglet (Illustration by E.H. Shepard)

There are many benefits to reading, many of them documented in scientific studies, such as widening vocabulary, increasing concentration, activating brain functions, and improving memory. A University of Sussex research found that the power of words to take you into a literary world calms frazzled nerves and slows down the heart rate more effectively than taking a walk or listening to music or having a cup of tea. In reading for pleasure, however, there are rewards that are far more crucial to our sense of wellbeing than the reduction of stress. 

At Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, as reported by Courtney Seiter on social media management platform Buffer, “two researchers scanned the brains of fiction readers and discovered that their test subjects created intense, graphic mental simulations of the sights, sounds, movements, and tastes they encountered in the narrative. In essence, their brains reacted as if they were actually living the events they were reading about.”

I agree, though at some point my enhanced ability to find something that resonates with me in the characters or events I encounter in books makes it a little hard for me to distinguish between fact and fiction. For example, I sometimes wake up feeling exhilarated, as if emerging from a great adventure, only to realize that I spent the night before adrift on the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger, a spotted hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and an Indian boy named Pi Patel between the covers of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. That’s not a bad thing, I think, that I sometimes confuse my facts with fiction. Someone said, “Exaggeration is my only reality.” That was Diana Vreeland, who also said, “Truth is a hell of a big point with me. Now I exaggerate, always.”

Not that I think exaggeration is needed in this life that is already designed to wow our senses, if only I had the fortune to get cast away in the Sahara and meet Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. But that precisely is what reading is for. In my book Write Here Write Now, I wrote that reading “opens doors, windows, roofs, and floors. It opens eyes, ears, minds, souls. It liberates you from the shackles of your everyday reality. It takes you to places far and away, to the other side of the world, to the ends of the universe, beyond space and time.”

FIRST EDITION A 134-year-old copy of the Noli Me Tangere by Jose Rizal (Ateneo de Manila University)

But that is only if you allow yourself to get lost in the pages. No other open tabs, assuming you are reading on a tablet or on your smartphone, to snatch you away from the moment just as Jack and Ma are about to carry out the escape plan they have hatched in Emma Donaghue’s Room. If you ask me, it doesn’t really matter whether you are reading online or a physical book. The digital age has robbed us all of the ability to focus on long stretches of time, so if you are on the beach reading a paperback, you are as prone to getting sidetracked as anybody reading on an iPad. A passing beefcake or bombshell on your reading patch of sand is no less distracting than a notification beep on your gadget.

On the contrary, just recently, I revisited Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and, in many scenes in the war zone that was Vietnam in the 1970s, I was in awe that there were soldiers lost in a book, as if they had nothing better to do like watching out for a sniper among the trees. I suddenly remember what the beach looked like in the 1980s of my sunworshipping youth: There were as many books as there were bikinis on the sand.  

To those boys in uniform, I imagine the books were an escape hatch, a ceasefire, a return to innocence, or even hell, something worse than war, if only to convince themselves that, as the idiom has put it, “Worse things happen at sea!”

MODERN AMERICAN CLASSIC To Kill A Mocking Bird first edition

And that, I think, is the best thing about reading—it cultivates empathy.  There is scientific evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling. It makes sense: We each only have 24 hours a day in this world and that’s not enough to cover the gamut of emotions available to humans and therefore, unless you read, it is easy to dismiss or deny or invalidate many such emotions and situations that are unfamiliar. 

As I wrote on FB, what teaches us better about empathy and humanity than the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of someone we care about who isn’t our family or friend or ourselves, just a protagonist in a story, maybe a figment of the imagination, like Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird or Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day or A.A. Milne’s Winnie The Pooh?

When I feel like messing up, for instance, I remember Holden Caulfied’s sister in JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and that reminds me to shape up instead.