This article is from the February 11 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit THE ESSAY


Books can take you to new worlds, provide solace when you are lonely and allow you to feel the joy and pain of others.

Book readers often report a sense of being on the outer.

In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, there’s a scene when Anna’s child has been taken away by the husband she spurned. She’s heartbroken and wants to tell her lover, Vronsky, about how terrible she feels. She pauses, worried about the look of disdain she knows will pass over Vronsky’s face should she unburden herself. Once she’s seen that dismissive look, she’ll find it impossible to love him.

And so she says nothing.

How does Tolstoy know these things about the human heart? How does he make us feel so deeply for this woman? By this stage in the story, she’s a character we don’t even like, yet the reader is overwhelmed with sympathy. You feel like cradling Anna in your arms. In that one scene – it’s only a few lines of text – we understand the extent of what she has given up; how little she will receive in return; and – here’s the painful bit – that she knows all this herself.

This is what fiction does, encouraging us to see the world through the eyes of someone else.

In Anna’s case, a person from a different country and century. It’s a master class in empathy.

This Tuesday marks the launch of the National Year of Reading, set up by Australian libraries and their friends to tackle illiteracy. The campaign notes that 46 per cent of Australians have difficulty reading newspapers, following a recipe, making sense of timetables or understanding instructions on a medicine bottle.

Literacy matters in all these practical ways but reading and libraries can also be transformative. The library and the bookshop are, if you like, gymnasiums of empathy. And by training our empathy muscles, reading changes the world.

Every reader, I think, will understand how this works in practice. Inside some books – Angela’s Ashes and A Fortunate Life are two popular examples – you can test your own feelings of grievance against those of someone who has lived through worse. Inside other books you’ll discover what it is like to be a beggar in Mumbai or a barista in Melbourne.

These insights are offered by other art forms, of course, but there’s something about the transportability , intimacy, simplicity, accessibility and diversity of the book that has made it such a popular vehicle for this trip outside yourself.

Two of the best British autobiographies of the past year have described this journey. Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman is a memoir of growing up poor in a crowded council house in the Midlands town of Wolverhampton. She talks about the local library as the cavalry that finally arrives over the hill, jangling its spurs, epaulettes shining in the sun, in the middle of her adolescent gloom. She’s a poor kid in a poor town but, suddenly , books are looking after her: ‘‘ There are thousands of people who want to talk to me,’’ she says, ‘‘ so long as I open their book’’ .

And I love this bit: ‘‘ Every book,’’ she says, ‘‘ has its own social group – friends of its own it wants to introduce you to, like a party in the library that need never, ever end.’’

Every reader will know that feeling; how the chance thread you pulled, maybe a single book by Aldous Huxley, leads this way to Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell or that way to Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood.

Or in a hundred other directions, all offering their own successive discoveries . The library is also the centre of action in the new memoir from novelist Jeanette Winterson, although Winterson’s methods are more methodical than Moran’s .

Adopted into a family of quite mad evangelicals, Winterson finds the library a refuge. At age 15 she visits her local library and decides to work through English literature A to Z, book after book after book.

By happy chance the writer who became her favourite, Jane Austen, was there in the A’s – an early reward and incentive. Later, things turn bad when she reaches N for Nabokov and hates his Lolita with a passion, finding it sleazy and woman-hating . She considers ditching the whole project until a sharp-eyed librarian encourages her to skip a few letters and gives her Gertrude Stein – still, perhaps, a good antidote for anyone trying to digest Nabokov.

Most readers will have a story like these – of books providing an escape hatch into another world. It can’t be chance some of the most treasured books feature a literal escape hatch: the Narnia books, the Magic Faraway Tree, even Dr Who make explicit the process of tumbling into a new world that’s on offer in every book.

Book readers often report a sense of being on the outer when they were growing up: ‘‘ I didn’t fit in and so took refuge in this other world.’’ In retrospect, we probably fitted in better than we thought. As I’ve written in one of my own books, it now strikes me as remarkable that the ‘‘ cool’ ’ kids, perhaps 5 per cent of the schoolyard, managed to convince the other 95 per cent that we were the odd ones out. The cool kids may have had the best haircuts – but their maths was terrible. And so was ours for believing them.

However false our sense of social alienation, books were still a ticket to other worlds. I remember being 12 years old, sitting on my own on the edge of the school oval, reading my favourite book at the time: Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse. (OK, I know, a picture does form.)

A swaggering oaf approached and trod on my book, just for the fun of it. I was a cowardly child but still leapt up to confront him. Alas, in my choice of language I may have been influenced by my current reading material . ‘‘ You can’t do that, you blighter, ‘‘ I said. ‘‘ You’re a complete cad!’’

I gave him a little shove. And he then punched me very hard. I know: a young martyr to literature. The point of the story – other than my particular idiocy – is the way I was so fully engaged in that other world at the moment of intrusion. I was completely locked away with Bertie, Jeeves and Gussie Fink-Nottle and no longer 12 and pimply and alienated and – can this list get any bleaker? – oh, that’s right, living in Canberra.

Books are tiny holes in the space/ time continuum; a rip though which anyone can wriggle. Wherever you are born, whatever gender, whatever social class, you can walk into the door of a library, open a book, and be invited to the high table at Oxford, or into the middle of a shearers’ camp out past Dubbo.

So does this time-travel have a point? Does it get us anywhere, other than offering a respite from ourselves?

The Better Angels of our Nature is a new book by Steven Pinker, published last year and described by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer as ‘‘ supremely important’’ . Pinker begins by destroying the myth that we live in the most violent of times, convincingly arguing that violence, especially in the West, has declined both in the long and short term.

Pinker then asks why this has happened; human nature, you might think, doesn’t change. He largely finds the answer in the rise of literacy, starting from the time of Shakespeare and then intensifying in the 17th and 18th centuries. ‘‘ Reading,’’ he writes, ‘‘ is a technology for perspective-taking … slipping even for a moment into the perspective of someone who is turning black in a pillory or desperately pushing burning faggots away from her body or convulsing under the 200th stroke of the lash may give a person second thoughts as to whether these cruelties should ever be visited upon anyone.’’

For Pinker, the decline in violence is a product of the rise of empathy, stimulated by reading and theatregoing . Pinker cites Shakespeare as an artist who, early on, proves the utility of writing; but it’s also useful, I think, to see Shakespeare as a product of writing.

The film Anonymous revisits the 19th century theory that Shakespeare didn’t really write the plays that carry his name. The theory rests on the idea that Shakespeare never travelled outside Britain, so how could he, from a relatively poor family, have known so much about European cities, their history and their culture?

Every reader instinctively knows the answer to that question: he read about Europe in books in a library. To be specific: in the library at the Kings New School in Stratford where most scholars believe Shakespeare was schooled.

Anonymous is a good example of the way we continue to dismiss what is sneeringly called ‘‘ book learning’’ , as if it is some sort of poor cousin of things learnt first-hand .

This ability to access information from people we don’t know personally , and to learn about places we haven’t visited physically, is one of humanity’s central skills; an attribute that separates us from the other animals. Animals communicate, of course, but they can’t quite do what we can: learn from people we have never met; spend time with people from another century; have a mental image of a town never visited.

How did Shakespeare know about Venice if he never went there? A million readers shout back the answer: because he read about it in a book.

Occasionally, I am still overcome by the opportunity of reading; the pure good fortune of it. Given a computer or a well-stocked bookshelf , you could be sitting with Jane Austen within a few minutes of reading this sentence. Or walking prewar Spain with Laurie Lee. Or rowing up the Hawkesbury River with some ticket-of-leave servants, in company of Kate Grenville.

The makers of Anonymous might not understand the power of literature but Shakespeare himself understood it – and so does every teenager who ever opened a book and became lost in a rush of sensations ; feelings of escape, of not being alone, and of empathy with others. The local library and bookshop , we realised early, was the cheapest travel agent in town.

Welcome to the National Year of Reading. And if some of us seem particularly shrill when we talk about the importance of libraries and book clubs and literacy schemes, please be understanding. It’s because we can remember so vividly what these things did for us.

Richard Glover is state ambassador for the National Year of Reading and will launch the event at the State

Library of NSW on Tuesday evening.

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald