Visit theallusionist.org/convalescence to hear this episode and find out more about it.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, seek VC investment to build the Uber of language.
Coming up in today’s show is a great excuse to recline on your swooning-couch with a warm lemon drink.
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On with the show.
HZ: When you’re not feeling well, which books do you turn to to make yourself feel better?
I asked this question on the Allusionist Facebook and Twitter, and hundreds of you responded, but a few answers came up again and again:
Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, JRR Tolkien.
Makes sense. Science fiction, fantasy: what’s more escapist?
Jane Austen. PG Wodehouse.
Also escapist, thanks to period setting - and, rich people problems not health problems.
Things you read when you were a child: Moomins, What Katy Did, Anne of Green Gables…
Taking you back to a time in your life that perhaps felt safer, or simpler...
Boarding school shenanigans! Wizard problems not real life problems!
And, Agatha Christie.
Poison! Gunshots! Stabbing! Hang on, why would stories about murder make us feel better?
Well, they’re kind of supposed to make you feel better.
Agatha Christie is, according to Guinness World Records, the best-selling novelist of all time,; author of 66 novels as well as numerous plays and short stories; her first novel was published in 1920, two years after the end of the First World War, and between then and the start of the Second World War, nearly thirty of Christie’s books were published.
The 1920s and 30s are now known as the Golden Age of detective fiction: British readers devoured works from authors such as Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, and Agatha Christie of course.
But she was also at the forefront of another British literary movement, one she may not even have been aware of: literature of convalescence.
GUY CUTHBERTSON: I guess in the literal sense we would use that to mean books you might read when you’re ill or sick. And then Alison Light, an academic, used it to talk about Agatha Christie and other detective writers, thinking more about a kind of nation in recovery, trying to get over something, particularly in this case the first world war.
HZ: This is Guy Cuthbertson. He’s an academic who works on early 20th century history and literature.
GUY CUTHBERTSON: Literature after the war helps a nation to recover by offering visions of domestic comfort and offering reassuring solutions to the murder that often is the heart of the story and avoiding traditional ideas of heroism and masculinity, which are where the hero has to often prove themself through acts of killing and violence themselves. So for instance, the detective in a lot of these stories will not be the one who actually goes and kills the murderer or anything like that, but simply provides the solution. And these are stories that ultimately avoid violence in any straightforward sense or in any scary sense, and avoid sensation as well. They're actually strangely subdued - the murder is weirdly unviolent, isn't it. And that's part of this idea of its popularity, particularly after the First World War, is that you're dealing with lots of death and murder, but it's not in the same way that it is in many people's actual experience or close family experience from the First World War or similar. People get killed, but you don't really get to see the killing, do you? It's always a body. There might be some blood and some screams, but it's hardly the kind of detective dramas and so on you get in TV these days, perhaps. It is comforting.
HZ: Hercule Poirot doesn’t get his kid gloves dirty grubbing around for forensic evidence, or put himself in grave danger chasing an armed suspect through a scary wood at night. Poirot studies clues and suspects in salubrious locations like country houses and fancy hotels and cruise ships. Nice job if you can get it, being a detective in interwar murder mystery literature.
GUY CUTHBERTSON: And what does it offer? It offers weirdly images of domestic calm, even though it is about murder in many cases; it offers violence where the violence is hardly present at all. It offers another idea of heroism, so that we have Miss Marple, a little old lady, as heroine; or we have a Belgian refugee, another elderly figure. They don't fit the usual idea of heroic action. And obviously the important thing about detective fiction as well is that at the end of the story we feel that the problem has been solved and that we can go back to a calm and happy society and there is that sense of reassurance, that, yes, there was this period of evil, this period of horrible experience, but now we're over it and we can recover. There's also that sense about a lot of the literature, like Agatha Christie, that it is also easy to read and enjoyable. And maybe we don't want something difficult, in the way that when you're ill in bed you don’t want to be reading very difficult books.
JANE GREGORY: It takes a lot of energy to be able to contain your own emotions. So if you don't have energy to spare then of course you're not going to waste those reserves of energy - those limited reserves of energy - on dealing with something emotional if you don't need to.
HZ: But novels are not just soothing; there’s more to this idea of them being a remedy.
JANE GREGORY: I'm Jane Gregory. I am a clinical psychologist working with obsessive compulsive disorder.
HZ: Jane sometimes advises her patients to read novels.
JANE GREGORY: For people with severe OCD, often it's taking up hours and hours of their life - they might be doing rituals for 10 or 12 hours a day. They might be spending most of their day thinking about their thoughts, or thinking about how they feel, or thinking about the impact of their illness. And so when you start to change that through therapy, they are then left with this big gap; and rumination likes to fill gaps, and so people end up just going over the same things in a way that's not leading to any kind of resolution. And so part of the process is working out how you fill that time, and ideally what people are working towards is working or volunteering or doing something that they feel invested in that as a intermediary they need something that's absorbing that can fill their time.
HZ: Jane recently prescribed novel-reading to a patient she’s been treating for OCD, with the purpose of getting her to spend time doing something absorbing.
JANE GREGORY: But the side effect of that was that she became invested emotionally in the characters and realized that that she could connect on an emotional level and experience these emotions that she was struggling to cope with when they related to her own life and her own experiences. She started connecting to the characters and empathizing with them, and feeling much kinder towards them than she could for herself. But just going through that feeling in a safe way helped her to realize that she could cope with that feeling.
HZ: Why do you think it's easier to do that with the characters in books vs. people in real life?
JANE GREGORY: I think our defences are down when we're reading fiction. We go into it with a sense that we're doing it for entertainment and so we drop our defences and just go along with the story. And so it's a nice sneaky way of getting in some sort of safe emotional experiences or even changing our minds about things. There's some evidence that fiction is more effective at changing social opinion than nonfiction - or specifically opinion pieces - because we go into those with our defences up or go into it expecting it to match what we already think. Whereas if we're imagining it happening to somebody else and we're connecting with the characters, and then we come across things that are different from how we think the world works or how the world should be, we're more likely to change our mind about it because we're going on this emotional journey with a character.
HZ: Is there also an element that when it's someone in a book, you, the reader, have more control in the relationship because you can you can control the speed, if it's difficult you can extract yourself in a way that you can't when there's a real person there? It's kind of one-sided.
JANE GREGORY: Yeah, I think that the key element here I think is your participation in it. So, yes, you're able to control what you read - you're choosing to read that story, you're choosing that particular book. But also while you're reading it you have to visualize what's happening. You have to work out what they mean when they say that what they might be thinking or what they might be feeling that would lead to that kind of behaviour. So you become an active participant in it, so you become more invested in it in a way that you might not with television where it can just happen in front of you, or in real life where people get defensive if you try and participate in their emotional experience.
HZ: So in fiction they can experience some emotions they don't want to be having, but in a safer way?
JANE GREGORY: Exactly.
HZ: Is one reason why you suggested books rather than telly as well as the sort of interaction one has with that medium just it takes longer?
JANE GREGORY: Well there's so much telly now that it can take as long as you like I guess!
HZ: There is a lot of telly.
JANE GREGORY: Yeah. The main thing with books is that you're forced to do a bit of the work just by the act of reading. So it's already much harder to be thinking about something else while you're reading. But with reading even just the act of having to read the words and visualize what's happening - that already starts off an active participation in what you're doing.
HZ: I think reading is probably the only entertainment form where I can't hear my internal monologue unless I've kind of drifted off the page. But I can keep tapping into my internal monologue when I'm watching TV, so if it's bad I can listen to both things at once.
JANE GREGORY: Yes. And the amazing thing about reading is that the story stops when you disengage so you then return back to where you were. The story can't continue if you're not reading it.
HZ: Yeah yeah. It can't go on without you.
JANE GREGORY: No. And you have to be absorbed in it to be able to keep the story going. Particularly thinking about the idea of recovery from illness, and in the work that I do, recovery from anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, we often think, "When I feel safe, then I will be able to become absorbed in something like reading." And actually when it comes to change, we have to do it the other way around. So we need to start becoming absorbed in something and then the act of becoming absorbed in something and nothing disastrous happening as a result of that makes us feel safe. So the action comes before the emotional or cognitive change.
HZ: Yeah, and as well, when you got a book you know that none of the thoughts you're having that you think might affect the outcome of something will actually affect the outcome. The book's already been decided.
JANE GREGORY: Oh yes, that's a very good point; I hadn't really thought about it. You can't ruin this story.
HZ: Unless it's a Choose Your Own Adventure.
JANE GREGORY: And the fact that you can't change the outcome and the fact that stories take a standard shape, like that most stories follow a particular arc and have a resolution at the end, I think that's why it's a really safe thing to prescribe, because it helps people to experience a beginning, a conflict and a resolution. And if each chapter has a mini version of that as well, that's even better because what people then experience is that things resolve. Even if they're really unpleasant, and even if the resolution isn't what you want, it happens, it ends, things move on. And so for people who are in a situation where they don't know how it's going to end reading something that reminds them - that they get an emotional experience - of resolution; that actually helps them to process that that's how life works. That things change, Things move on, and nothing is actually... no feeling you've ever had has ever stayed forever.
HZ: But I suppose you've weathered some crises as a witness while you're reading the book and you made it! So you're perhaps better able to deal with crises, or being crisis adjacent, in real life.
JANE GREGORY: Yes, so you've weathered their crisis on their behalf by being emotionally connected to them and you've weathered your emotional experience of that, you've got through those emotions and you come out the other side. So probably the worst thing to do is to stop reading and just put a book down at the most traumatic point in the book; and that's actually, with post-traumatic stress disorder, one of the ways that PTSD keeps going is that whenever people remember the trauma they shut it down and stop thinking about it mid-trauma. And so they don't get through to a point of resolution so the memory doesn't get completed in their mind it doesn't get connected to the resolution where they survived and they're okay again. Or how what they feared was going to happen the moment didn't happen, or wasn’t as bad as they thought it was going to be.
HZ: So they're always trapped at the worst part of it.
JANE GREGORY: Yes. Yes. So their body then stays on guard and under threat.
HZ: Now, we’re not saying that reading novels is a miracle cure. Don’t prescribe yourself a book in place of seeking professional medical guidance. But as a supplement - why not?
JANE GREGORY: There was a study that was done that where I think they got the people to read for six minutes and that the stress reduction that came from reading fiction for 6 minutes was better than attempting to do relaxation exercises. So that along with stress reduction - so not only does it help you to physically feel better, but when your cortisol levels go down, that also helps with some of the physiological elements of the body - it can help your immune system to function better. So in terms of physical illness: if you are less stressed with your physical illness then your immune system is able to do its job better. So theoretically it could help with your physical recovery as well as your emotional recovery.
HZ: What does cortisol do?
JANE GREGORY: Cortisol is what is triggered off in times of stress and, when it's working in a functional way, helps to energize us enough to deal with stress, so at optimum levels, it helps us to focus better and to be able to problem solve and make decisions. But what often happens is we go through periods of sustained stress and sustained levels of cortisol, and it's not so helpful when it's there all the time - it's supposed to come and go as needed. So a little spike in cortisol every day is actually a really helpful thing. But if the cortisol levels stay high then it's very draining for the body and the other functions of the body don't work so well.
HZ: So how does cortisol respond to the reading?
JANE GREGORY: The act of reading helps to reduce stress which then triggers off the parasympathetic nervous system which helps to bring everything back down to normal functioning. So that's the regulating element of reading, that if you're stressed or anxious it helps to bring everything down, and if you're feeling low or flat it can help to energize you and the act of sort of engaging and participating in the story helps to lift you up.
HZ: Do you think it is more likely to work with fiction than nonfiction?
JANE GREGORY: I think it's more likely to work with fiction and nonfiction because our defenses are down when we're reading fiction. We're not expecting it to offer us anything more than entertainment and so we let our guard down and we can connect with what's happening in a better way than we can with with nonfiction.
HZ: Do you have a book that makes you feel better?
JANE GREGORY: I tend to go in the opposite direction from all of this that actually, when I'm not feeling well - my job is literally to be empathic and compassionate toward others. So if I'm not feeling well or feeling burnt out, what I actually look to do is the opposite. I really love James Bond novels. So something where I don't have to connect with the characters on any level; it's just pure entertainment.
HZ: It doesn't seem like the characters have to exhibit much empathy towards each other, either.
JANE GREGORY: It's sort of slightly devoid of emotion.
HZ: In my mind there's not a lot of emotion in Agatha Christie either. The characters aren't necessarily grieving.
JANE GREGORY: No, but as a reader you have to invest in the story because you want to work out what's going on you want to connect with the story rather than the characters themselves. Whereas with James Bond there's no real connection there, you just along for the ride.
HZ: But now a murder book might be a lot more gritty and there probably isn't a detective with a nice moustache and lovely Art Deco flat.
JANE GREGORY: And that then takes you back to the thing of it takes a lot more energy to read gritty and gory stories, because the feeling of disgust that comes from gore. That’s actually quite again quite a tiring emotion to be experiencing and it's not supposed to be a sustained emotion, we're supposed to remove ourselves from potential contaminants and that's why we get that feeling of disgust. And so to read a book where you're having to read a lot of that - it's quite tiring because we're programmed to try and remove ourselves from that.
HZ: Do you have a favourite that you read to make yourself feel better?
GUY CUTHBERTSON: Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers is a good example of that; it's one that offers a very nice solution in the end. Probably the best book you'll read about bell-ringing, anyway.
Thanks to Audible for sponsoring this episode of the Allusionist. Audible has a huge library of audiobooks, so you can listen to literature while you’re driving, or cleaning your windows, or building a record-breaking sandcastle - or lying down ill, when you’re too weary to use your eyes or your hands, you can still be entertained and distracted and educated.
There are some classics of convalescence literature in there: loads of Agatha Christie, some narrated by David Suchet - the best Hercule Poirot and no returns.
Many of you told me your convalescing book of choice is The Princess Bride - Audible have got that, narrated by Rob Reiner, who directed the film; and if you’re really on a Princess Bride tip, you could chase that with the audiobook As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride, which is voiced by the stars of the film.
You don’t have to be ill to treat yourself to a cheering audiobook. Go to browse Audible’s library, and there’s a special offer for Allusionist listeners in the USA: free audiobook when you take out a 30-day trial membership! You can cancel your membership at any time, but you still get to keep your book. Go to audible.com/allusionist, or text ALLUSIONIST to 500500. Browse away, download, and start listening.
During my recent hospital stint, my entertainment consumption was a pretty good indicator of the state of my health. First few days: didn’t need entertainment, I had the swirly hallucinations induced by the meds I was on - like a very oversaturated screensaver right there in my eyes. Then when I went into the ICU for a few days, it was the second season of Queer Eye. Weirdly, I don’t remember much about being in the ICU, but I do remember what happens in Queer Eye. After that, back in the ENT ward, I graduated to podcasts of longform interviews with people I’m only mildly interested in, so it didn’t matter if I fell asleep every four minutes. A couple of weeks in, I had enough energy again to hold a book and swivel my eyes across the page, so started off with the 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: 1. rereading; 2. low peril; 3. interwar; 4. nostalgic for a period I never lived through. Next stage of recovery was a few humorous memoirs: easing gently into reality, but not too brutal. I knew I was a lot better when I found myself reading The Underground Railroad.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best podcasts you can shove into your ears. If you haven’t already subscribed to our special channel, Showcase, then sort that out because several times a year, we launch a new short series of something excellent on there. This month we’ve got The Great God of Depression: it’s the very compelling profile of neuroscientist Dr. Alice Flaherty and the acclaimed author William Styron, whose lives intersected as they each explored their depression and their creativity. I listened to all five episodes in one go, it felt like a very engrossing book. Content note: this series is about mental health and also child mortality, so some of you may prefer to sit it out. But do subscribe to Showcase anyway, because there’re several very different series on the feed already, and there will be more coming along soon. Find Showcase, along with all of the Radiotopia shows, at radiotopia.fm.
Radiotopia is kept in excellent health by you listeners. Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
jougs, noun: a hinged iron collar chained to a wall or post, used in medieval Scotland as a punishment.
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This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, and Martin Austwick, who also provides the music for the show. Thanks to Jane Gregory, Guy Cuthbertson, and Caroline Crampton. I’ll link to each of them at theallusionist.org/convalescence. Find allusionistshow on Facebook and Twitter - we had a very nice time on there talking about our favourite books for when we’re ill, didn’t we? Come to see me bringing the verbal entertainment on stage in the next few weeks - it’ll be a fun hour of your life, and it’ll be a more fun hour of my life if you’re there. Gig listings are at theallusionist.org/events. And you’ll find all of the past episodes, transcripts, the words of the day, and indeed everything allusional, at theallusionist.org.