Good evenings, friends and neighbors.
You may have noticed, but reality can suck. Quite often, really.
It feels like the world wants something from you every moment. Things go wrong, or they go right in the wrong way, and sometimes you don’t even know what the hell the point of everything IS.
I read somewhere that humans are the only intelligent creatures for whom our own existence poses a problem. Other creatures live in the moment, learning as the go, with the sole aim of “survive another day.” For us, at the pinnacle of the food chain as we are, existential threats to our lives aren’t nearly so frequent. We still have all those frustrating survival mechanisms- transformed into stress, anxiety, depression and all that- but mostly we have the time and leisure to say “Why am I here?”
Reality can be heavy… and fortunately, our intelligence has given us a whole bunch of ways to lighten the load, even for a moment. We came up with movies, video games, all sorts of activities- but it all started with stories.
Who Doesn’t Love A Good Story?
A long time ago, I talked a bit about “the magic circle” and how it relates to restaurants. Extra Credits really did it better, but I’ll sum up the concept here. The “magic circle” is a concept in storytelling where a specific attribute- physical or metaphorical- allows the audience to suspend disbelief and invest themselves in something that isn’t real. It signals that they should pay attention and listen to something that has no effect on their actual lives- that they have left their own world, and entered that of the story. It may be the light of a campfire or the curtain on a stage- the message is the same: “It’s time to escape from reality for a minute.”
Video games and movies all do what they do so well (or not so well) because of this concept- but books tend to do it the best for me.
Ever since I was a kid, I loved reading and absorbed stories- rereading and memorizing my favorites so that I could tell my family and friends later, or so I could draw inspiration from them when I needed it.
When reality gets a little too heavy, we all need an “off” button so that we can decompress, relax, and maybe even get some distance to attack our problems differently.
Here are six books that I find myself reading and rereading when I need to take a break from real world. Some amuse, some soothe, some inspire- and most remind me of parts of life that I really should remember more often.
If you ever wondered where my sense of humor came from… blame my parents and exposing me to Monty Python at the age of 7. If you’re curious about my love of words and wordplay, though, that falls entirely on this book.
Norman Juster’s children’s book about a bored little boy named Milo is built upon obvious metaphors, and the lessons the book offers are no less obvious. On a rainy day, Milo finds a toy tollbooth in his living room. Driving through in his toy car, he finds himself tooling around the Kingdom of Wisdom, on the Sea of Knowledge. He ends up on a quest to defeat the demons and monsters of the Mountains of Ignorance to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason. Along the way, he visits the Point of View, jumps to the Island of Conclusions (how ELSE do you get there but jumping?) and encounters a host of hilarious characters intent on teaching him that his world is not nearly as boring as it seems.
Open it for the whimsy, stay for the puns and metaphors, reread for the reminder that life isn’t as straightforward and dull as it seems.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
An Andalusian shepherd boy goes to the city to sell wool. Along the way, he decides to get his fortune told- and the fortune teller tells him that he’ll find an incredible treasure at the Pyramids in Egypt, and doesn’t charge him but asks for a tenth of his treasure when he find it.
Cue disbelief, finding an ancient king, and realizing that when you really go after what you are meant to do, things tend to take care of themselves.
After hearing about it a lot, I finally got this book in a similar set of circumstances. I’d just sold a bunch of books to a local bookseller who offered me store credit, and this book was on his shelves. The money got me a couple collections of food writing, “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” and this book (so far. Got $12 left. Shop local, people.)
I can honestly say I read it at exactly the right time in my life. Yes, the structure tends to hit you over the head with “The Point”- but you wind up no less invested in the story and wonder how the shepard boy WILL find his treasure, wincing when he stalls out, sighing when he finds his way again.
Pick up a copy, and reconsider how you see the world- and how it is apparently actively scheming to get you where you want to go, as long as you actually want it.
Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
Yes, I’ll take a chunk of innocent joy please.
If you saw the movie “Goodbye, Christopher Robin,” you KNOW why A.A. Milne wrote the stories of Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger, and the rest. He wanted to give a world shocked my cataclysmic war a reminder that there were beautiful, simply, lovely things in it. If that was the Hundred Acre Wood and his sons stuffed toys… then mission accomplished.
Life can be rough… but if you spend some time with a silly old bear and his friends, life can go from “rough”, to “enough”.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
If you can think of a better way to handle the ongoing horror show of humanity than imagining it getting wiped out for the sake of a hyperspace bypass, then sit down and friggin’ write it already.
Douglas Adam’s series about Arthur Dent touring the cosmos as the last human alive (after his best friend turns out to be an alien and hitches them a ride) has been THE staple of science-fiction comedy for decades. How better to put your life, problems, and entire existence in context than to utterly remove from the center- make it barely background noise to a thriving cosmos quite busy with its own problems.
We all need a sense of perspective. Except that in these books, the machine that gives you an *actual* sense of perspective is used as a form of capital punishment.
Interested? Good. Read.
The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, trans. by Stephen Mitchell
I keep trying to think of a good way to explain one of the foundational texts of Taoism to someone who doesn’t know it, and I keep failing at offering anything better than weak analogies. That’s probably the point.
The Tao Te Ching just… makes you feel good to read it, and it makes sense even if you can’t quite explain why. The entire ethos of Taoism is to be flexible. To let things be as they are- even celebrate that they are as they are- and retain a state of compassionate equanimity.
I like the Stephen Mitchell translation. Pick up a copy, sit down, and thumb through it. It’ll take you maybe 20 minutes… but I bet it’ll leave you going “…huh…” at least once.
What books do YOU turn to for escape? How about advice? Comfort? Drop them in the comments- my pile is pretty tall, but that’s never been an excuse not to add more!