On Shabbat afternoon, I sit on my favourite couch and read. It is a special time of escape for me, during which I submit to the imaginary world of literature. Ever since I was a little girl, these mental afternoon excursions enhanced my life and made Shabbat all the more engrossing. Instead of concentrating on all the limitations, I experienced a remarkable emancipation.
Shabbat is a good frame for this sense of freedom. It both restricts and enables. There are negative and positive requirements, frequently referred to as the duality of shamor v’zachor (protect and remember). Focusing on certain activities and refraining from others establishes an accessible template dedicated to emotional and spiritual stimulation.
In this digital age, we are surrounded and even controlled by the ever-present Internet and its automated controls. We can reach out and be reached at all times. Usually that availability enhances our lives. But the tendency to be controlled by this electronic system can be overwhelming. When does work stop and privacy begin? Or does it ever stop? A total Shabbat disconnect can be a healthy, if difficult, break.
But it is in the realm of reading that I find full release. Books take me to new worlds and new visions.
As a child, I remember quite clearly the books I read that transported me to other worlds. Then, as an adult in my own home, I thanked God when our children were finally all old enough to settle down with a book Saturday afternoon. The peace that descended on our home as we all read was miraculous, a true blessing. It wasn’t the sleep I needed – although I did need it – as much as the transcendent relief.
With a good book I am transported to another world, one in which I can explore and share unfamiliar lives and environments. The ability of good narratives to enhance our lives by exploring these unfamiliar worlds is immense. Through books, we can extend our lives, our understanding and our experience.
I remember that marvellous day when, as a child, I read Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth and became aware of the power of a good story. There I was, in my bedroom, getting a glimpse of life in China. There I was, a Jewish, middle-class high school student, sharing the lives of poor farmers in a world far away. That memorable encounter exposed me to its everlasting influence. Never again would I assume life was the same for all. Never again could I transpose my lifestyle onto others. The reality of human diversity was exposed and recognized.
Many assume they can get the experience of other cultures through world travel or exotic gourmet foods. And while I applaud that openness to otherness, I truly think only a great author can illuminate the full human dimension.
A good book succeeds in two dimensions. On the one hand, it reveals an unknown physical and/or historical reality. Through reading, we can visit the unknown of the past or the world of other cultures. Additionally, books reveal characters and their relationships in ways we could not have imagined or fully grasped. Through reading, we can open ourselves to the vast panoply of human diversity and abundance. We don’t all talk, eat or think alike. Seeing other ways of being is an enlightenment never to be depreciated.
Currently, I am reading a series of books by Nadia Hashimi. The world of Afghan women as described has been unlocked. Before my daughter-in-law introduced me to this collection, I would blandly critique war and the toll taken in this part of the world. But I did not know what I was talking about. Now I have gained a glimpse of the richness and poverty of their lives. Now I see the similarities and differences that make our world so fascinating. Now I am richer.
I do not travel on Shabbat, but I travel the world over through my books.