Saturday, May 25, 2019

Escapist Literature vs. No-Escape Literature by Emily Zarevich

The Challenge of Compiling a Fair Booklist in Turbulent Times
It’s the age-old question for bookworms. Should you read for pleasure, or education? Should you spend an hour or two scouring the shelves at Chapters for something that will entertain you, or enlighten you? Should you treat yourself to a volume of romantic fairy tales with a modern twist (from the young adult section, naturally) or should you pick up an insider’s account of corrupt government administration? Is it time to reread The Handmaid’s Tale, or do you feel more drawn towards Katherine Arden’s medieval fantasy page-turners? 
      If you frequent bookstores, you’ve doubtlessly seen both the glossy new editions of Margaret Atwood’s novel (now also a TV series starring Elizabeth Moss) and the intriguing The Bear and the Nightingale. So which do you, the unsure reader, choose? What feels right?
Wandering into bookshops nowadays, both corporately or independently owned, I’ve observed that it has become the norm for books on pressing political and global issues and crises to be the temptations on display, like frosted pink cupcakes lined up neatly in a row in a bakery window, come-hither and guilt-inducing. Feminism. Racism. Climate change. Gender studies. Mental illness. The worldwide economic crisis. The tumultuous — to put it lightly — situations in America, North Korea, Russia, Iran, Syria…
“Don’t you want to know what’s going on?” they ask, demand. Of course I do, I insist, throwing up my hands like someone accused. I’m an educated and concerned person. But I often pass by those books for the same reason I retreat from the cupcakes in the window. They’re just not good for my health. But I would like one. Eventually.
I understand that it’s a great privilege, to be able to walk away like that, to have the freedom to choose when I want to approach and study these issues. I know my other privileges as well. I live in a peaceful country where I, as an adult woman, can work, drive myself around on safe streets, buy whatever books I like with my own money, and read and think and write for myself. Nothing is withheld from me. No authoritative, censoring hand is snatching knowledge out of mine, or pouring through my many notebooks of scribblings for infractions. 
I’ve read George Orwell’s 1984 as an observer, not as a participant in its dismal narrative. The same with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women have even less agency and importance than in Orwell’s universe. In Airstrip One, they are at least allowed to hold jobs outside of the home, as opposed to Gilead’s stringent sphere of domesticity and childbearing that Atwood traps her female characters in (because only women know and understand just how bad it can really get for women).
That doesn’t mean neither book terrifies me, though. They’re both my worst nightmare. But they’re nightmares I can wake up from when I close the book shut. “Calm down. It’s just a dream,” I reassure myself as I reach for my glass of water on my nightstand. A very thorough, very probable dream, sadly, and it seems like I’m not the only one who’s catching on. As an experiment, whenever I visit new bookstores, I ask the staff how the copies of these two dystopian novels are selling. The response? “Everyone comes in here, asking for them. We’re sold out.” 
Every. Single. Time.
It’s a sign. People are getting suspicious of their leaders and are reading these books. People have to read these books. People have to be able to recognize the possibilities. History’s mistakes are weeds that grow back. Yanking them out of the ground ... and by that, I mean ripping out essential pages, altering material to fit an agenda or outright banning the books altogether will do nothing to solve the problem. 
  You solve the problem by studying gardening, acknowledging your errors of judgement in planting your garden, and devising a strategy to alter said garden so the unwelcome predicament doesn’t happen again. But gardening all day long gives you a backache, and your head gets dizzy from too much time under the blazing sun. You need to take a break. You need to read something else. 
For readers everywhere, this is what I propose: a booklist that is, in equal parts, eye-opening and eye-candy. I’m reading The Bear and the Nightingale. To balance things out, I’m also halfway through Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, a memoir of the author’s experiences as a liberal-minded career woman living in the oppressive Islamic Republic of Iran. I switch back and forth, periodically, between a recklessly brave young Russian girl battling mythical creatures in medieval Russia and a cautious adult facing an acutely harsh reality in modern-day Iran. 
When I’m finished reading both of these, I’ll move on to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Then, to balance things out, Margaret Atwood’s modernized Shakespearean drama Hag-Seed, or perhaps the next book in Arden’s Winternight trilogy, The Girl in the Tower. Five pages of this, ten pages of that. Ten pages of this, five pages of that. Familiar dystopias, then magic realms. Real dictators, then fictional heroines. Take a break, and repeat. 
One escapist book, and then one no-escape-from-real-life book, at the same time, taking turns being picked up and set down like kids on a seesaw. This method guarantees a guilt-free reading experience. I get my fuel and my treat. Is that not the best way to be fair to myself and to the rest of the world? In a world where so many opportunities and choices are disappearing fast, why not have the privilege of choice in this one small aspect of our lives?

Note: Quick Brown Fox welcomes your essays about your experience of reading or writing or about favourite books, and other essays, too. Read a few essays on the blog to get a taste of what other writers have done (see here and scroll down).Quick Brown Fox also welcomes book reviews – or any kind of review of anything, of anywhere or of anybody. If you want to review your favourite coffee shops or libraries, babysitters or lovers (no real names please), go for it. See examples of book reviews here (and scroll down); other reviews here (and scroll down).
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Emily Zarevich lives in Burlington, Ontario. She attended Wilfrid Laurier University, where she studied English literature, and went on to Humber College where she studied TESL/TEFL (Teaching English as a Second Language). She's previously been published in Understorey Magazine, Living Education, and Quick Brown Fox.  

See Brian Henry’s schedule hereincluding Saturday writing workshops, weekly writing classes, and weekend retreats in Algonquin Park, Alliston, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Georgetown, Georgina, Guelph, Hamilton, Jackson’s Point, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Midland, Mississauga, New Tecumseth, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Sudbury, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.


  1. I’m an old-age bookworm. I love the old strategy that including searching a story at different bookstore shelves, review the titles and then read it. You’ve given a brief review on Escapist Literature vs. No-Escape Literature. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Being a bookworm, I don’t like to handover my books to anyone else even after reading several time. I love to keep them secure in archive storage boxes for reading in future. So, at my place you’ll find huge number for interesting new and old books in shelves and the outstanding ones in archive boxes.

    1. Thank you for your kind comments! Being a bookworm is almost a part-time job on its own, isn't it?

  2. Nice! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I like this article that you've published about "Escapist Literature vs. No-Escape Literature by Emily Zarevich".
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