With risks to our festive season, it may be worth considering a good read

By JASMINE EDGE: Literature Columnist

‘Bah! Humbug!’ Is an infamous phrase that pops back up again this time of year, particularly in winter 2020. Can books save Christmas this year?

A fruitless path has already been laid out by prime minister, Boris Johnson, towards this year’s Christmas. However, rather than people contemplate on what they may be missing; picking up a book may be an unexpected comfort for many this festive holiday. Debbie Hicks MBE, the Creative Director of Reading Well, and a founder of The Reading Agency touched upon the idea that, “lots of people lose the magic of reading at school when they just see it as part of the curriculum and part of learning, rather than it being a leisure…a sort of life tool really.” With this in mind, reading could help bring back a bit of magic this winter.

As England in the middle of a second lockdown; spending Christmas with loved ones in the usual way is very doubtful. This means that many people could have a lot of spare time on their hands; and reading books may be the most constructive way to spend it.

Social distancing measures, and limited contact with the outside world has ushered in a mental health epidemic across all age groups. A study led and published by the University of Glasgow that surveyed 3,077 adults across the UK, found that there was an increase in suicidal thoughts at the beginning of the first lockdown in May. Professor O’Connor reportedly said, “While public health measures, such as lockdown, have been necessary to protect the general population, we know the effects of COVID-19 on the population’s mental health and wellbeing are likely to be profound and long-lasting.”

A reading initiative which began in Wales, in 2003, known as ‘Books on prescription’ offers bibliotherapy as a way for those suffering from mental health, to find help and refuge in reading. This programme, started by Professor Neil Frude, now known as Reading Well; is finding new and innovative ways to reach out to people during these difficult times. Hicks stated that, “There’s been a lot of activity, people have been borrowing the books through library lending services, because I think there’s been a huge need. It’s been a very anxious and difficult time for people.” Research published in Brain Connectivity (Dec 2013) detailed an experiment involving 21 participants, whose brains were scanned whilst reading ‘Pompeii’.

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The results revealed that reading led to short and long-lasting increases in brain activity. In the published article their results were summarised as so, “[The] results suggest a potential mechanism by which reading stories not only strengthen language processing regions but also affect the individual through embodied semantics in sensorimotor regions”. In short reading can help to improve language and can affect how an individual reacts to certain situations.

Scientific research supports the idea that, reading can have a positive impact on people suffering with various mental health conditions. It is now a great way for many people to understand their mental health by reading books that provide specific information on a mental illness, or even a way to help improve their mood and find an escapism within Literature. The ‘books on prescription’ scheme, which has reached 1.2 million people, and remains backed by health professionals, is a great way for people of any age to seek help either by going directly to their local GP, checking out one of five booklists on the Reading Well website or popping to your local library to pick up a book. Although the latter may not be possible at the moment, it is key to note that libraries also offer an e-lending service that is perfect for the current lockdown situation in England.

Keeping in tune with the festive season, Hicks has indicated which festive books she might recommend to readers as a source of comfort and reassurance, when celebrating Christmas differently this year. “I’ve got two suggestions really; one of them is a classic and I always think ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Dickens is really good for the soul…it’s a bit like tomato soup, it’s one of those books that just makes you feel better, but also makes you think as well; so I think that would be one of the books. Then the other book that I was going to suggest is a new one, and it’s [by] Millie Johnson and it’s ‘I wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’.

It seems it is more important than ever to look after our own mental health, and reading is becoming an increasingly popular way to do that. Particularly during these times of increased loneliness and isolation; it can help us feel more connected. It is now an evidenced backed “powerful” resource, that people have already proven works for them.

MACKAYAN: christmas, sleighed or saved?