Books are a gate to more of the worldpxhere

In the chaos of Cambridge life, it can be hard to make reading for enjoyment a priority. Throughout second year, I wistfully accumulated a pile of books, but in my slightly frantic term-time mental state, a trashy TV show or scrolling through endless Instagram posts always seemed more appealing.

At the end of last term, after cancelling a trip abroad with friends, with gloomy news forecasts that there would be no travel for the foreseeable future, I picked up my first book out of this pile. The books that drew my attention in the next weeks were not the English classics, but instead the ones set far from my now-becoming-dull childhood room. In my unstimulating home environment, I discovered three of my favourite books.

Entering the world created by an author in our distraction-filled times may seem exhausting, but it is well worth it to broaden our horizons when we can’t do so physically. This may take more effort than watching a documentary — it is a more subjective and individual experience compared to the rather passive watching of television. Books can also offer a more personal perspective about lives in other cultures, as we follow characters whom we get to know and with whom we begin to empathise.

“The travel and movement of characters in the books I was reading gave me a sense of change and excitement, even if real life was stagnating”

Usually travel writing means a quasi-journalistic, factual description of places visited by the author and their experiences while travelling. None of these novels perfectly fit this category, but for a reader, any writing about a place that isn’t your home can count as travel writing, because it is an introduction to a new culture.

A key part of any travel experience is trying the food of other countries. In a book, the physical sensation of taste is absent, but the rituals surrounding daily meals can be experienced in a way that a tourist actually eating out at a restaurant would perhaps not discover. In Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, set in Nsukka, Nigeria, food is key. The novel reaches a turning point when Kambili, the protagonist from a rich family, learns to prepare Orah leaves for the first time with her less wealthy aunt and cousins; in doing so, she gains a sense of empowerment and acceptance. The sharing of food is forbidden between Kambili and her grandfather, but the moment that they eat together, tension dissolves. Food is not just to be consumed but also to solidify ties, and Adichie’s writing welcomes us into these intimate moments.


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Music is another portal into others’ daily lives. In Purple Hibiscus, Kambili doesn’t listen to music in her strict home. Her freer cousin, Amaka, turns on a tape player and nods along to the “polyphonic beat of drums” of “culturally conscious” musicians. In Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami, casual meetings in Japanese coffee shops are accompanied by the singing of Astrud Gilberto. Reading about the music in these characters’ lives does not fully sate the desire to be there in person, but it does seem to bring the coffee shop closer.

The travel and movement of characters in the books I was reading gave me a sense of change and excitement, even if real life was stagnating. In Sputnik Sweetheart, the main character, K, travels from Japan to a remote Greek island searching for his missing best friend. Following him swimming nude under cloudless skies or dining in unfamiliar restaurants, his sense of freedom passed onto me. Meanwhile, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrente follows the friendship of two girls growing up in a poor neighbourhood in Naples in the 1950s. The main character, Elena, stays at the beach in Barano for the first time, and flourishes with the help of sun and independence.

“It is a privilege that novels let us into characters’ innermost thoughts in mystical moments”

A sense of the otherworldly and altered states of consciousness can perhaps be described better than they can be filmed. Murakami describes a dreamlike state in Sputnik Sweetheart; K climbs an island hill in the moonlight, following an eerie song. He feels a sense of being underwater; “someone had rearranged my cells, untied the threads that held my mind together.” A similarly unsettling moment occurs in My Brilliant Friend when one of the girls sees the “outlines of people and things dissolve” in a competition between two of the neighbourhood’s families for the most impressive fireworks. In Purple Hibiscus, we follow Kambili’s pilgrimage to Akope; Kambili sees the blessed virgin as “an image in the pale sun, a red glow on the back of my hand, a smile on the face of the rosary-bedecked man.” It is a privilege that novels let us into characters’ innermost thoughts in mystical moments.

Literature also has the power to transcend stereotypes, which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been vocal about, stating: “if you followed the media you’d think that everybody in Africa was starving to death and that’s not the case; so it’s important to engage with Africa.” However, she also wryly pointed out the dangers of thinking that one novel can have the power to represent an entire country: “I recently spoke at a university where a student told me it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had recently read a novel called American Psycho, and that it was a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.”

In our current climate, literature is needed now more than ever to remind ourselves of the universality of human existence and to encourage ourselves to think in others’ shoes. With our own stories on hold, hearing the tales of others can fill that void.

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