The best authors describe a world “without hope, ravaged by misfortune”, says Michel Houellebecq in Le Figaro. Tormented by their vision, they are “almost always alcoholics” and often possess other “even more dangerous” habits. And yet we are right to admire them: not because literature increases academic knowledge, but because it aids human well-being “in a way no other art can claim”. During the French revolution, as jailed aristocrats awaited the “unprecedented moment when the blade would cut their necks”, they would devour books. And when “seized by the executioner’s helpers” and dragged to the scaffold, many would take a moment to place their bookmark. They were so immersed in their novel that they momentarily forgot their grisly fate.
In our own distressing situations, as we anxiously wait for medical test results or exam grades, we also turn to books. Music is not suitable – it “involves the body too much, which we are trying to forget”. Cinema, even an “exciting thriller”, cannot distract from our worries. To truly escape a “mentally painful situation”, we need a “page-turner”: a book so captivating you cannot tear yourself away. Even when read on a sunny beach, Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories can instantly transport you to a rainy night in a Baker Street apartment, “where the charcoal stove gently purrs”. Fiction is “not only a pleasure; it is a need”, for it gives us other lives when the circumstances of our own “become too painful”.