I used to read novels for pleasure, then for exams – now I read them for their little jewels of wisdom

Novels. Why do I read them? My reading was at its most voracious when I was a kid. I suspect this was because my only purpose was enjoyment and escapism. From all 21 Famous Five stories – in order, naturally – to Anna Karenina, stuffed into a pannier on a cycling holiday, I was transported. Then, for A-levels and a degree, I read to pass exams. Slowly, tellingly, the joy faded. And I was no good at the exams either. When those last exams were done, more than 30 years ago, I was done with novels. I had fallen out of love.

Gradually, it has come back, but it’s all different now. I find I’m reading whole novels mainly to unearth little jewels of wisdom to shed light on what I’ve been feeling; feelings that I’ve been unable to articulate myself. For some reason I picked up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. A bit flabby in the middle, if I may say so, but generally I was transfixed by what started to seem like the greatest love story ever told. The plot soon starts to fade, and all you are left with is how it made you feel. This is nice, but what makes it all worthwhile is those specific insights that I make sure to harvest and go back to. For instance, Helen says of her new life in the big city: “At first, I was delighted with the novelty and excitement of our London life; but soon I began to weary of its mingled turbulence and constraint.”

A few months later, I chanced upon Anne Brontë’s resting place in Scarborough. Standing over her grave, I looked up this little passage and appreciated anew how intensely it resonated with my own feelings about London. And there the poor young woman lay, gone 173 years and still making new friends. That’s quite something.

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