Under the lens

So, I’m an over-thinker. I obsess over little details, particularly negative ones and ones which focus on social interaction. I’ve been told it’s anxiety, but that’s a dangerously fluid term these days; call it what you like, it causes me more than a few headaches.

Thousands upon thousands of us worry every day what other people think. Strangers, colleagues, friends, maybe even family – we agonise over showing them the ‘best’ of ourselves. Luckily, most relationships worth having are strong enough to hold firm even as these selves fluctuate. Especially when we’re younger, looking to settle on a reliable, predictable, personal self which we can own, the strength of these relationships comes into its own. Our siblings forgive us those bitter comments, our friends don’t mind carrying us home as stewing, drunken messes. But where does this strength reach its limit? And where’s the rule-book that tells us which… mistakes are easiest to recover from? Or how many blips we can have with someone before they start to reassess us, to judge us.

Is it worthwhile to wear ourselves down, bringing every encounter, every conversation under the microscope? Or can we let go? It can’t be fair that, with our measly snippets of life on this planet, we should have to spend so much time and effort caring about being dropped. I hope this is the case.

Or do I? There’s the rub here, the reason this anxiety can’t be waived aside. If we don’t need to over-think, how will we keep track of ourselves? How will we know if we’ve slipped into more sinister habits? Should we only wait until it becomes so obvious that it can’t be ignored, that we’ve changed into something we no longer feel comfortable with? Will it take losing a friend to notice we are suddenly selfish, or lazy, or obsessive? No, surely life is about keeping this danger in check.

The only problem is, it’s knackering, and each of us, as social creatures, needs somebody from whom we don’t have to hide our… less than perfect selves. And that is something I’m sure of.




Ah, books

This was meant to be posted yesterday! Once again I’ve missed my own schedule. In fact, I almost thought about giving it a miss today, but where on earth could that slippery slope end? Today, skipping deadlines, tomorrow, scrapping showers. So here. Another slice of my nogin.

In case it isn’t clear from my past posts, I care quite a lot about literature. Clichéd as it sounds, reading is a complete addiction for me (seriously, over the past few days I’ve worried about its effects on my health, especially my eyesight). I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have at least one book on-the-go, and while many would argue this is a waste of my time, it’s probably one of the few things I do which I absolutely have no qualms in continuing.

We all know that reading generally has a positive effect on intelligence (my BSc grad partner would definitely dispute the validity of these studies, though). But what’s possibly more wonderful about reading is its effect on our – mental – health. Until literally a few minutes ago, I had no idea that bibliotherapy is a real thing (http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/can-reading-make-you-happier) but now I think about it, it’s such an obviously brilliant idea!

But why? again I ask. Why does reading make us feel good? Well, I can think of at least three reasons at the moment:

  1. It’s a mental activity. Even the most seasoned readers, I imagine, wouldn’t deny that reading makes us feel like we’ve accomplished something – especially more difficult texts (case in point, Don Quixote is currently giving me a severe but weirdly satisfying lesson in stamina).
  2. It distracts us from the iffier parts of life. Had a bad day at work? Argued with a friend? Pick up a book for a while and cool off whilst having a stream of entirely fictional scenes play through your head. If watching T.V. can fix the problem, why can’t reading?
  3. Finally, and maybe most crucially, is the fact that reading can remind us that we are not alone. This last point seems slightly contradictory to the second, where we’re trying to get away from others. But some of the most profound moments of my life (albeit there haven’t been many) have come when in just one paragraph, even one sentence, a writer manages to perfectly encapsulate a notion that’s nestled in my own mind. Suddenly, what seemed an abnormality in me, something not to be trusted to others, is actually shared. It’s… beyond words, like the glimmer of a lighthouse must be to stranded sailors.

To me, reading is like watching a really great drama, except you’re given access to all the thoughts of the actors, all the crazy concepts behind their actions; all the beautifully complex emotions are laid out in front of you in a way that could never be done by show. Who wouldn’t want that?

These are just some of the reasons I taught English, just some of the reasons I’m fighting for libraries. I wouldn’t give up books for the world, because they already give me one.


The Library: Something Worth Fighting For

I’ve missed my posting deadline by ages, I know – I’ve got no excuse, except the flimsy argument that I’ve known throughout the past few weeks that I would come back to writing soon, and I have. I’ll try better next time.

I have a few things I’d like to talk about over the next few posts, but first up comes a topic close to my heart, and a crisis desperately in need of support – what is happening to our libraries?

Most of us know the grim reality; sweeping closures, staff cuts and forced volunteering in place of salaried work, and an apparent loss of interest in society’s oldest and most iconic forum for learning and communities. Several governments across the globe seem to accept that these institutions are pretty much defunct.

Now, librarianship in some form has been an ambition of mine for a while. As a future MA student in the discipline, and in the face of the many-headed monster telling us derisively that these are things of the past, I have to laugh to save myself from crying.

There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of people crying out against this problem since the end of last year alone, when the ‘My Library By Right’ campaign was launched with much media success. From the likes of best-selling authors like Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman, to the young family of four down the road, a real bastion of support has sprung up from all sectors of our society. But our band-aid-filled pockets are rapidly emptying, and these leaks ain’t slowing down.

Having recently begun volunteering at my own local library, I’ve had time to think about exactly why this is such a desperate issue, and there are so many reasons to keep libraries alive. Just one example: on what planet could it possibly be acceptable to no longer lend literature for free? The counter-argument that all texts are accessible online is nonsense, not only as a relatively tiny amount of texts have so far been digitised; they’re normally as painfully expensive as their printed equivalents!

But I don’t think this is the burning reason for keeping libraries (simply because it’s so undeniably obvious). I also don’t think it’s the similar suggestion that physical texts are headed for extinction; as a librarian, these resources still need to be managed, even digitally.

The fact is that for many, libraries are the only access to the wider, thought-provoking world. How many community centres have you seen over the past week? How many village halls? These places have already all but collapsed, like the dusty bones of an ancient skeleton, suddenly exposed to a hot gust of wind. With these gone, where are all the people who don’t fit into the modern world’s norm of social media, house parties or Zumba classes supposed to connect with everything else on this planet?

I’m not just talking about the elderly here (although providing a place for them to satisfy their social and intellectual needs is more than enough of a reason to speak up, surely?) Last Saturday, just five minutes into my voluntary shift, I had a teenage girl asking me what books I thought she’d like to read, because nobody she knew from home or school could help her. A short while later, a young boy wanted to know whether he could find help with a project outside of school time. Twice, I had non-English-speaking people ask about language-learning books, and for help in using the alien self-service machines. It’s worth noting that this was during just a two-hour shift.

These are just a few examples of people who, in some form or another, need dedicated, educational support. Yes, we have the internet, but if that’s all we need as a society, why don’t we scrap physical schooling, counselling, even socialising? Why can’t the library be a place for these people, too? The library might be one of their precious few safe, positive learning environments.

I don’t know what we need to do here; all I know is that libraries cannot die out. It would be like museums, or even hospitals. Sure, a library’s never going to heal your fractured pelvis, but it confers another, equally indispensable kind of health for those less confident, less privileged, less noisy members of  society.