Guest Camille Noe Pagán on Reading Saves Lives

Guest Camille Noe Pagán on Reading Saves Lives

[Reading educates, enlightens, entertains and even allows us to escape from or clarify personal problems. In today’s guest post, Camille Noe Pagán (The Art of Forgetting coming June 9, 2011) chronicles how reading also can be the ultimate lifesaver.

And, on that related note, please remember that from May 16th to June 1st, the author is donating $1 per pre-order of The Art of Forgetting to the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which provides resources and support to service members, including those who’ve suffered brain injuries.]

Reading Saves Lives

After I emailed Caroline Leavitt to tell her I loved her recent novel, Pictures of You, she mailed me a handmade bookplate. It was a photo of wings on the sidewalk in front of a brownstone. Beneath it, Caroline wrote:

“Camille, reading saves our life.”

Cute, I thought at the time.

But that saying burrowed under my skin like a tick; try as I might, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. While I was out jogging one day, I suddenly realized that Caroline was right. Reading had saved my life–more than a few times.

During my childhood, I followed in the footsteps of millions before me and escaped the misery and sadness of youth by losing myself in books. I became an Egyptologist while reading The Egypt Game; took on the White Witch alongside Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; and let the green world bring me alive like Mary and Colin in The Secret Garden.

In my twenties, after despairing of my instinct to flee a relationship that was so good for me I didn’t know how to handle it, I read Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love twice in a row, then went around recommending it like a door-to-door evangelist offering free copies of the Bible. (Spoiler alert: I married the good-for-me guy. Thank you, Mr. Baxter, for that nudge.)

While a friend of mine was dying from terminal cancer, I dove back into my favorite novel, Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, a story that illustrates, among other things, the way humans are interconnected with nature and every living thing. It was a sustaining thought in a time of internal chaos.

As a journalist (my other hat, when I’m not writing fiction), I cover health and wellness. I’ve written about depression and crisis more times than I can count, and the thing I hear from physicians and therapists time and time again is this: getting out of your own head can stop your negative, depressive thoughts and help you feel better. Our self-focus can drown us if we swim in it too long. But when we participate in activities that make us look outward–whether it’s exercising, volunteering, or being with friends–it breaks through those thoughts and offers perspective. Reading does this in the most primal way: it takes you out of your head and puts you in someone else’s.

The ability to leave my life and enter a fictional one—even for a few minutes—has kept me from sinking so many times (no surprise, writing fiction has a very similar effect). To me, at its core every novel is about redemption. When the characters we are reading about triumph, or even just survive, we cheer along side them because it reinforces the idea that we, too, can survive and triumph.

A month or so ago, a woman emailed me. It turns out that she helped copyedit my novel, The Art of Forgetting, which is about how two friends’ relationship is forever changed after one of them suffers a brain injury. She told me that while she was working on Forgetting, someone close to her had suffered a serious head injury. Your novel was a great source of comfort to me during that time, she wrote. Thank you.

It was then I knew that writing the novel had been a worthwhile endeavor; I had finally paid forward what Barbara Kingsolver, Charles Baxter and countless other authors have done for me. I may not have literally saved that woman, but my book had been a lifeboat during her flood. I’ve had some lovely early reviews–and, of course, some less-than-lovely, too. None of those words, good or bad, have meant nearly as much to me as the email that said, Your book helped me.

Reading saves lives. If you don’t believe me, crack open a book the next time you feel yourself starting to sink.

* * * * *

Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away one copy of The Arrivals by Meg Mitchell Moore in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post, Meg Mitchell Moore and The Arrivals. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is Wednesday, May 25, 2011 at 7:00 p.m. EDT with the winners to be announced here in Thursday’s post. If you enter, please return Thursday to see if you’re a winner.

10 thoughts on “Guest Camille Noe Pagán on Reading Saves Lives

  1. So first of all, how wonderful is Caroline Leavitt? I’ve been a fan of hers for literally years, and getting to know her as a person has been one of the highlights of this crazy year for me.

    And second, you are totally right. I would never have framed it in those terms, but reading has done for me what it has done for you times a thousand. I don’t think I would understand the world or live with joy if it weren’t for the stories I’ve read that have shown me how.

    Congrats, Camille!

  2. What a wonderful post! And I totally agree. I’ve never put reading in such a dramatic context before, but I’m sure that if I looked back on my lowest moments, I could find a book that lifted me up. I have always turned to stories, whether reading or writing them. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at reading quite like this before and I’m so glad you made this point, because you’re right; reading (and writing) has probably saved me more times than I’ve realized. Thanks!

  4. What a WONDERFUL post, Camille. I never really thought about the depression-reading connection, but it makes so much sense that by entering a new world, you move from your internal bubble into another world.

    What a tremendous feeling to know that your book is already making an impact – even before it’s released.

  5. Great post. An affirmation that what we do in this life is purposeful, no matter how big or small our actions are. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Thanks so much for having me, Larramie—I was thrilled to write about a topic so near and dear to my heart. And thank you for the thoughtful comments, Eleanor, Kristan, Keetha, Melissa and Mina!

  7. Camille, thank you so much for sharing this story. I can’t begin to say how many times reading has saved my life, it has been such a part of my life, taken me to places and circumstances I’ll likely never experience. I’ve been able to learn compassion and humility in reading stories that have meant the world to me.
    Sarah Jio’s twitter brought me over, and based on her recommendation I’m looking forward to your book.

  8. Oh, Camille. What a great post. It is SO true. I think about children that live in poverty or unhappy circumstances and what a great book can give them. Hope, dreams, love, and laughter can all be had in between the pages. It is always my go to when I am down and out. I never made the connection of depression, however. I was going through therapy and never knew it!

    Love this post! XO

  9. Camille,

    You are so right, that stories save us. Many of us owe to books that we came through childhood. It’s true, too, that through reading and jumping into someone else’s head and life, we can take our minds off of our own–this is why reading in some form won’t die. Stories give form to life, and connect our hearts in ways almost uncomprehensible. I look forward to connecting to FORGETTING!

    Thanks for the great thoughts!


    PS. I LOVE your connection to the Woodruff Foundation. What a beautiful heart!

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