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The pleasures of countercyclical reading

Every year at the start of December, children open the first doors of their advent calendars, adults enjoy a stroll around festive town centres, and newspapers and blogs publish lists recommending the best Christmas-themed reads for the holiday season. The same goes for other holidays such as Halloween, and even for whole seasons or activities, i.e. The Best Beach Reads or Books to Put a Spring in Your Step. While there is nothing wrong with this kind of seasonal reading, in trying to match one’s reading habits and book choices to the seasons and holidays, the pleasures of countercyclical reading are often overlooked. This means that in your reading habits, you purposefully do not match the seasons and holidays, or in other words, you ignore the annual cycle that defines our lives.

What makes countercyclical reading so enticing is its escapist character. Many people have a favourite season or holiday, so countercyclical reading is a great way to teleport yourself to that seasonal happy place of yours, when things are not going as you had imagined. What better way is there to brave cold winter storms and rain knocking on the window than by dreaming of summer, by reading Call Me by Your Name or I’ll Give You The Sun? And isn’t the thought of Christmas and a nice alpine winter à la A Castle in the Clouds glorious when you are battling the downsides of spring, such as pollen and unexpected sunburns?

Stories are, among other things, what makes us human, and there is nothing inherently wrong with dreaming yourself away as long as you remember to return to reality

A few years ago, it must have been October or November, I read a book set in summer. I cannot even remember which one, but I distinctly remember feeling like it was May already, believing that butterflies and resilient flowers breaking through cracks in the pavement were so close I could grasp them. For a moment, even if it was a short one, I managed to read myself away and forget about the wintry melancholy that sets in when the leaves have finished falling and the trees are left dead and naked.

Reading in general has often been characterized as an escapist activity, and sometimes criticized for it. This argument definitely has a point, since it can be dangerous to actively avoid facing reality, and of course, it would be misguided to just give everyone in Europe free Netflix and as many books as they can read, and let them forget about the situation on Europe’s external borders and about living conditions in the Global South. However, escapism can also be beneficial in low dosages. Stories are, among other things, what makes us human, and there is nothing inherently wrong with dreaming yourself away as long as you remember to return to reality.

In addition to this, all escapism is temporary, because you have to return to reality at some point, whether that is because you need to eat or sleep, or because you have finished your book. While this return might be disappointing at first, you do not have to leave fictional worlds behind. Perhaps you know the feeling when you have just finished a book, or even a whole series, and you are happy and sad at the same time. In the moments (and sometimes even days) afterwards, this melancholy often stays with you, as do the characters and the story you have just left – you might call it a literary hangover, perhaps even heartbreak.

But luckily, since countercyclical reading largely focuses on the general feeling of seasons or holidays, and not so much on plot and characters, the literary hangover is less painful than a usual one and mostly has positive effects. You could say that in a way, countercyclical reading habits actually mean you can have your cake and eat it too!

For instance, it is fabulously refreshing to read Smilla’s Sense of Snow at the height of summer. You can lie on the beach or on the balcony, feeling the tickling of sun rays on your skin and getting a tan, and at the same time, you can explore wintry Copenhagen to cool off a bit. And the best part: even after you have finished reading, the snow and ice stay with you and help you endure the heat.

The concept of countercyclical reading is also useful in the current Covid-19 situation. In a way, any kind of reading is countercyclical and escapist during a pandemic (unless you are really into historical fiction set during the plague or the Spanish flu). The current pandemic has most certainly exposed and exacerbated inequalities, both globally and within countries, and it has transformed societies. Therefore it might be seen as dangerous to indulge in purely escapist reading. But Covid-19 has also left its mark on the human psyche, and we can hardly tackle any of the politico-economic implications of this pandemic if we do not take care of ourselves and our well-being first.

Of course, there is only so much you can achieve in terms of mental health by reading, and it is by no means a long-term solution to serious mental health problems. But if you simply need to take your mind off things for a little while, reading might just do the trick (especially the escapist variant). Just like sports, socialising, or even food, reading helps some people recharge their batteries.

What better way is there to brave cold winter storms and rain knocking on the window than by dreaming of summer?

Much like comfort food, such as sushi taking you to Japan or tortilla de patatas taking you to Spain, countercyclical and escapist reading allows us to travel in space and time alike. You can visit 1950’s New Orleans in Out of the Easy, or experience the UK in the 1970s in Naked, you can get a feel for Victorian London with A Spy in the House, and live in Korea and Japan in the 20th century with Pachinko.

Needless to say, one size does not fit all, so it is perfectly acceptable to just go with the flow and indulge in pandemic-themed reading. Feel free to match your reading habits to the seasons and holidays, and snuggle in with a cup of hot chocolate to enjoy a Christmas-themed novel as decorations light up town centres. But if at some point you find yourself longing for summer, now you know what to do.

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