At a time of crisis, reading books can help us make sense of the world

Why do any of us read books these days? There are so many other forms of information and entertainment that are much easier to consume. With 20 minutes to hand, why wouldn’t you just scroll for a while through TikTok, or check in on a news app?

Yet sometimes bite-sized doesn’t work. I want to share an example from my own reading. At the end of 2023 and the start of 2024, I was following the Israeli offensive in Gaza the way I usually follow news media. Which is to say, I mostly read headlines and saw photos. I knew something shocking was happening, but that very sense of shock sent my brain into short-circuit. I couldn’t stay with the story; I couldn’t understand it.

Then my friend and research partner, Claire Squires, told me about a book she had just read: Don’t Look Left: A Diary of Genocide by Atef Abu Saif.

Atef Abu Saif. <a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Alebaa News, via Wikimedia Commons;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Alebaa News, via Wikimedia Commons</a>, <a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:CC BY;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">CC BY</a>

The Palestinian Authority’s Minister for Culture, Abu Saif was visiting Gaza from the West Bank with his 15-year-old son when the bombing started. Don’t Look Left is his diary of the next 85 days, shared with his publisher through WhatsApp messages and voice memos.

Reading this book clicked with me in a way other media hadn’t. Over the course of its 288 pages, I got to know Abu Saif, his extended family and his friends. The diary format and the ever-present threat had the immediacy and urgency of news media, but the way the diary unfolded helped me to see people and places in a new way. I learned the names and nuances of different neighbourhoods – like Jabalia refugee camp, where the author was born in 1973, and the tent city of Rafah.

Abu Saif conveyed what it was like to make daily decisions about where it was safe to sleep. He describes seeking out the most fortified parts of a building, lying awake listening to missiles. I gained insight into the harrowing quiet moments between bombings, staring out shattered windows at night. The texture of everyday life and survival amid terror – searching for food, finding somewhere to charge batteries, checking messages from friends and family, helping neighbours search the rubble of bombed buildings – was woven into something profound that has stayed with me.

Since reading Don’t Look Left, I have been able to remain engaged when the news feels overwhelming, to place the ongoing horrors in Gaza into a framework of deeper understanding.

Aesthetic and moral

Reading may sometimes seem invisible or quiet, but it is a highly dynamic activity, infused with energy. In my book, What Readers Do, I explain that reading is both aesthetic and moral.

Reading Don’t Look Left had an aesthetic dimension, because its narrative structure offered me a shape I could recognise and a pace I could absorb. It aligned with my brain and helped me find meaning in the world around me.

It also had a moral dimension, because it enabled me to empathise with others. The book helped me see Gaza at eye level, as a person walking through its alleys and buildings, not just as a series of aerial images.

Books remain powerful. Amid all the offerings of digital media – from bingeable shows to news blogs and funny videos – reading still has a place for many of us. Adaptable and enduring, books have not been replaced by new media, but sit alongside them: they circulate not only in print form, but as audiobooks and online serials; they are adapted for other media.

Globally, the book publishing industry generated US$132.4 billion in 2023, more than the movie and music industries, though less than video games. The figure has stayed steady for many years.

Book festivals proliferate and celebrities run book clubs on Instagram. Book sales surged during the COVID pandemic. And book reading is not just for one demographic. While many studies suggest a majority of readers are highly educated women, reading cuts across ages and cultural groups.

A 2021 report on US reading habits by Rachel Noorda and Kathi Inman Berens, for example, found that avid book engagers were younger and more ethnically diverse than the general survey population.

Reading a book can involve both aesthetic conduct and moral conduct. Daniel Tadevosyan/Shutterstock
Reading a book can involve both aesthetic conduct and moral conduct. Daniel Tadevosyan/Shutterstock

Solitary and social

As books persist and develop, so do reading practices.

The moral and aesthetic dimensions of reading occur in a range of different settings. Reading can take place alone, but it can also be sociable. It is a practice that sometimes includes digital technology, and sometimes eschews the digital in favour of print.

Readers act aesthetically when they use books to give their lives style or structure. For example, people are drawn to different genres, like poetry or crime fiction, that resonate with their sense of life’s shape. I looked to Don’t Look Left for a narrative form that was meaningful to me. Other people might seek out beautiful language, complex characters or heroic quests.

Readers also engage in aesthetic conduct when they visibly identify as bookish: posting curated shelves on Instagram, cosplaying as a favourite character, or carrying a Penguin Books tote bag. The books people read find their way into how they live their life.

Readers can use books to test ideas of right and wrong. Some books pose moral dilemmas that readers can use to refine their own position. Richard Osman’s most recent Thursday Murder club book The Last Devil to Die, for example, raises the issue of assisted dying.

Readers can also use books to develop the moral capacity of empathy by seeking out writers with perspectives that are new to them. For example, I am one of over 41,000 followers of the Blackfulla Bookclub on Instagram, led by Teela Reid and Merinda Dutton, which highlights First Nations writers and storytellers.

People connect books to their personal and political views, and express those views through social interactions. On social media, readers sometimes engage in moral conduct by expressing views on the behaviour of authors, publishers or others involved in book culture. Maybe this is “cancel culture” – or maybe it is simply activism and influence.

But reading can also happen quietly and alone. For some, private reading can be a sensory, even erotic pleasure: inhaling the smell of a book, lying on the beach or the grass. For others, private reading can be training in sustained attention, “deep reading” that helps the brain. And for others, it can be a form of mindfulness, a restorative balm that counters the overwhelming aspects of modern life.

Reading, on its own, can’t solve every problem. But it can help us gather the resources we need to live in a way that is meaningful. It can be a practice that helps us make sense of the world and our place in it.

This article is republished from The Conversation. It was written by: Beth Driscoll, The University of Melbourne

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Beth Driscoll receives funding from the Australian Research Council Linkage Project LP210300666 Community Publishing in Regional Australia