My favourite book growing up was J.D Salinger's 'Catcher in the Rye'. Despite being written 60 years prior, I related to the angst and trepidation Holden Caulfield felt about growing up. It was comforting and reassuring to know that feeling slightly uncertain and pessimistic at times was an inevitable part of adolescence. Unfortunately, it was the last classic I would read for several years, as I developed an apathetic attitude towards the usefulness of literature upon leaving school.
It is common among men to stop reading. A Roy Morgan study in 2016 found that not only are men significantly less likely to read a novel, with only 41 percent of men as opposed to 61 percent of women reading one in any given three months, but that the percentage of men reading is also declining.
Delving into a novel requires effort in the digital era in which constant distraction is the norm, but the benefits outweigh anything which a smartphone notification can provide.
Many young men, as psychologist Phillip Zimbardo discusses in Man Disconnected, are increasingly turning to easily obtainable sources of instant gratification, such as alcohol, drugs, porn, video games, social media, gambling and live sport, as a means of escaping and coping with inner insecurities and anxieties about the world.
They are less likely to disconnect and delve into a 100,000-word novel. These unhealthy sources in excessive consumption, intertwined with a lack of suitable male role models, are only perpetuating the mental health issues young men face.
Upon embarking on a period of self-improvement, I looked to self-help books, meditation and journaling. Yet the biggest transformation I found was after delving into classical literature. It suddenly made me feel normal, like all my fears and worries were actually an inherent part of life. Or, as Abraham Lincoln once said, 'Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren't very new after all'.
My ego suddenly deflated, and the feeling that my suffering was somehow unique or unprecedented subdued.
Most recently I read 'East of Eden', in which through the characters of Adam Trask and his sons, Aron and Cal, John Steinbeck demonstrates the ineradicable suffering which each generation inherits and carries into adulthood, and how through taking individual responsibility, we can break free from those circumstances, and create our own destiny.
I felt a great sense of empowerment in applying the character's predicaments to my own life, and learning how or how not to deal with the childhood beliefs I had developed which had been the origin of much suffering.
Likewise I found solace in F.Scott Fitzgerald's semi-autobiography 'This Side of Paradise', in which the author outlines his disillusion while studying at Princeton University, documenting his emptiness and loneliness in dealing with his childhood, finding love and establishing a career, all while handling alcoholism. It brings great comfort knowing that one of the greatest talents of the twentieth century had similar anguish as young men of today.
Further, we can learn about courage and conviction and the respect of women in 'Jane Eyre', resilience and perseverance in the job market in 'The Grapes of Wrath', compassion and forgiveness in 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' or the perils of chasing fortune and fame in 'The Great Gatsby'.
Reading the classics gives us insights to the complexities of the human mind and how individuals deals with the trials and tribulations that our lives encounter daily. They help explain the struggles of life, and the acceptability of feeling sad, lost and empty at times.
Men have been conditioned by society into seeing suffering as a weakness. It is the fact that we are feeling sad or empty that makes us feel more uncomfortable than the actual cause of our suffering. We are more likely to retreat into our own minds and toxic habits than to express our vulnerabilities and imperfections.
Embracing literature can allow us to accept our feelings as a part of human nature, while acting as a vehicle to encourage us to open up and divulge our thoughts and emotions. Or, as Steinbeck says, 'And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good'.
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Delving into a novel requires effort in the digital era in which constant distraction is the norm, but the benefits outweigh anything which a smartphone notification can provide. Reading the classics may not be a complete remedy to the mental health issues young men face today, but it can provide a stepping stone to understanding our place in the world, and the agony and distress that can accompany the transition of developing into a mature adult.
Along with contributing to a sense of satisfaction and a meditative state of mind, beginning the journey of tackling the classics has not only changed my approach to reading but also my life for the better. As J.D Salinger says:
Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them – if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement.
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