Sara Pauff: Reading vs. real life problems

January 16, 2012 

Got your nose in a book again?

I heard this slightly teasing question a lot as a kid.

I couldn’t help being a book lover. My parents didn’t sign me up for t-ball or swimming lessons. They took me to the library. Remember the Book It program? I earned so many reading points for free trips to Pizza Hut, I got sick of pizza after a year.

During hot summers, I’d hide in the basement, the coolest place in the house, and read through stacks of paperbacks. I promised friends I’d come outside to play -- just as soon as I finished one more chapter.

I still like to read. In this age of constant distraction from TV and the Internet, there’s a certain appeal to losing yourself in a good story. You forget about real life problems and immerse yourself in fictional ones.

But even though the people, places and problems in books are made up, can you still learn how to navigate real life by reading a novel?

Granted, your chances of coming across wizards, vampires, zombies or Mr. Darcy during your average work day are pretty slim. However, if you read your favorite novels a little more critically, you might gain some real world wisdom.

That’s part of the premise behind “Much Ado About Loving,” a new book by Maura Kelly and Jack Murnighan, that uses literary classics, like the works of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy, to dish out romance advice.

I’m surprised a book like this hasn’t been written before now. I find reading novels to be more entertaining than reading advice columns, so why not combine the two? Dear Jane instead of Dear Abby.

I think subconsciously, we “take advice,” romantic or otherwise, from any story we read. Studies have shown that reading fiction improves your ability to empathize with other people, because when you read, you’re forced to see life from a point of view different from your own.

When I read any story focused around a group of siblings, I’m reminded of my relationship with my sisters. I’m the oldest and, in fiction, conflicts between older and younger siblings abound. In “Sense and Sensibility,” I’m Elinor, the oldest sister, but I also see things from the point of view of Marianne, the younger sister. This helps whenever my sisters do or say something I disagree with or don’t understand.

Through novels, you learn how to deal with setbacks and bad days. On days when I need confidence and toughness, I think about female characters who don’t take any crap from anyone -- Mattie Ross, from “True Grit,” and Katniss Everdeen, from “The Hunger Games,” are my recent favorites. They struggle and fight to get what they want, even when other people tell them to take it easy and not make a fuss.

Keeping your nose in a book all the time is no way to live. But if you want to know how to live, reading a book might not be a bad place to start.

Sara Pauff, 706-320-4469 or spauff@ledger-enquirer.com. For more commentary, read her 20-something blog.

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