Over Christmas, my grandma knitted baubles to hang on the tree in her communal front garden. As people walked past, they’d look up and notice the woollen snow drops. Kids especially, they’re far better at spotting things than adults. They’d grab a sleeve, point upwards and giggle at the tree’s winter gear.
One morning someone dropped a package through grandma’s door. It was filled with chocolate and on the envelope was written: to the neighbour with balls. Every time grandma picked up the envelope she laughed again. She loves that this funny new tradition makes strangers smile, that it can brighten someone’s day. And her neighbour reaching out with that little gesture made a big difference to her too.
Two fifths of older people say TV is their main form of company, roughly two million adults say they can go a week without having any contact with anyone, and nine million adults in the UK say they are often or always lonely. I’m currently working in a bookshop and occasionally I’ll speak to a customer and wonder if that’s the only conversation they’ve had all day.
Social contact can reduce physical pain and loneliness can enhance it. It guts us mentally and physically, and it’s not just the elderly who are suffering from it. Dozens of reports demonstrate that those in their twenties are more likely to suffer from loneliness than those in the fifties, predominantly brought on by lack of stability through the housing crisis, the economy and the job market (social media is at the centre of many of these conversations too). The government’s recent installation of Tracey Crouch as the Minister for Loneliness suggests intent to take this modern disease seriously and to create platforms of support.
In the period immediately after University it is hard not to feel a bit lonely. After the bustle of being busy every day, being part of multiple clubs and communities and different groups of friends, all fifteen minutes apart, you suddenly feel thrown into the ether with nothing to grab onto. It’s hard not to feel a little bit emptier.
If you haven’t got a job lined up you might move back home but your friends might be doing a course a year longer than yours or a year abroad. You might one day google how to make friends as an adult and it might not seem like anyone has the answers. Your family might largely cook and clean for you so you might revert back to an ungrateful, complacent teenager. You might worry constantly about finding a job, get 43 rejections and then give up. You might take up running for a week and then decide you’re doing a marathon so that you have purpose. Then you might get a job in catering and learn that you should only ever love someone who is kind to customer service staff and that you’re too tired to train for that marathon.
Everyone might try to give you advice and you might write a lot of lists and watch a lot of Netflix and half-heartedly fill in more job applications for things so far from anything you’re interested in that you might almost kid yourself that you want to go into data analysis.
Somehow, eventually, it might start to get better and you might get a job in a bookshop that you really like and the job might come with people you really like too and it might feel like a lucky package deal to have stumbled into.
And eventually you might realise that everyone still feels lonely, every so often, some far more so than others. So when you’re working in your new job you might remind yourself every so often that each little chat you have can matter. And in a bookshop, talking about your favourite stories, it almost feels like you’re sharing new friends.
Forgive me. During university it’s easy to fall out of love with reading because you have to do it. There are deadlines and essays with print too small and PDFs you can’t turn round so you have to read holding your laptop upside down, and there are some really dull books that you have to pretend to have read, and you feel guilty if you pick up something for fun when you have so many unread pages for your seminar tomorrow morning. When the freedom of reading whatever and whenever you like returns, and when you’re surrounded by miles of books every day, it’s tricky not to feel romantic about stories.
It’s the tilting pile of books on the bedside table, mutating and growing like ravenous weeds taking over the room. It’s stuffing a book inside a jumper to protect it from the rain. It’s rolling through the tunnels of the tube looking up just enough not to trip as you turn a page. It’s putting a book on the edge of a table at dinner in the place of a phone. It’s the scraps of paper spilling out of pockets from recommendations to read. It’s walking through the shop and knocking over a pile of books and picking them up and feeling that hunger for words and thinking yes these are the ones I want next.
One of the reasons we love stories is that they take us into other people’s lives, so that for a while we can control who we are spending our time with and what kind of characters they are and we can then get lost in their words. If you’re struggling with a new move, or a loss, or somehow a lack of self, those characters can help you feel a bit less lonely. Just like walking past my grandma’s garden and seeing the damp woolly baubles hanging cheerfully from her tree.
Last year Louis Menard wrote an article in The New Yorker about why we read and why we write. He wrote this about poetry, but I reckon it stands for most stories:
“Maybe it will change your life. If it does, the change will be very, very tiny, but most change comes in increments. Don’t expect too much out of any one thing. For although the world is hard, words matter. Rock beats scissors. It may take a while, but paper beats rock. At least we hope so.”
– In Defense of Poetry, Louis Menard, The New Yorker, 31 July 2017