I'm reading
Reading as sanctuary
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Reading as sanctuary
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Reading as sanctuary
Pass it on
Pass it on
3 February 2022

Reading as sanctuary

Each time lockdowns have ended, one of my first ‘in real life’ visits has been to my local bookstore.

Written by Natasha Sholl

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.

Discussed in this Story

As a young child, reading took me to imagined worlds. Adventures had and literary friendships made. I still remember faking a sick day so I could stay home and read Matilda in one sitting (sorry, Mum) – one of my first (and only) displays of childhood rebellion and an act of self-care before the phrase became part of our cultural lexicon.

Now as an adult, reading feels like a revisitation of this childlike bliss. Our external lives may be ruled by restrictions, fear, uncertainty, but in reading, our inner lives are nurtured through connection, joy and wonder. The way a perfectly formed sentence can release a flood of endorphins. The way an interaction with a character on the page can almost satiate the skin hunger we’ve felt after being separated from our loved ones.

In this way, reading becomes about both mind and body. I know I’m not the only one to have held a book to my chest after reading or to leave a completed book on my bedside table, not yet ready to let it go (which is why Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is never far from reach).

Each time lockdowns have ended, one of my first ‘in real life’ visits has been to my local bookstore. An almost religious experience where the glow of pristine spines and the smell of pages not yet dog-eared prompts a kind of irreverent awe.

As a reader, I have no responsibilities, and in a world where the weight of the things we must do can feel crushing, that is its own sense of liberation. I can read a book that’s been raved about, short-listed for awards and the recipient of accolades and seemingly universal praise and I can… hate it. The reverse is also true – that books once loved don’t always stand the test of time. We can outgrow books, as much as some books help us to grow.

There are times when I read as a writer, almost to reverse engineer what has ended up on the page. The ‘physics of the form’ as George Saunders writes in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. ‘I sometimes joke (and yet not) that we’re reading to see what we can steal,’ he says of the classes he teaches in nineteenth century Russian literature. Yet more often than not I read as a reader, not thinking about form at all; simply letting it wash over me. Even then, I’m still reading to see what I can steal. Thoughts. Ideas. Perspectives. Like a bowerbird, snatching bits and pieces to make my world (if not my writing) a better place.

Regardless of genre (literary fiction, romance, spec fic ,YA, non-fiction or the classics or whatever piques your interest on any given day), regardless of form (audiobook, borrowed from the library or purchased from your local indie bookstore) – there is no gatekeeper that determines what belongs. The only requirement is that reading brings something to the table (peace, joy, perspective, company, laughter, distraction).

It doesn’t mean I don’t spend nights doom-scrolling Twitter or binge-watching TV. It just means I know I always have a soft place to land. An internal compass to help me find my way home.

There have been times when I have been unable to read. When books provided no sanctuary. When babies turned my brain to mush. When work robbed me of spare time or energy or motivation. When illness or trauma or family tragedies made it impossible to sit still and read, let alone sit in my own skin. And so, when I have the privilege (and it is a privilege) to be able to snatch time, to soak up words, it’s not something I take for granted. Because reading might be a sanctuary, but it’s not something that’s necessarily available to all of us, all of the time.

When I started writing this piece, my intention was to write about how the act of reading transports us to somewhere else. When our worlds became restricted to a five-kilometre radius we could travel to Japan thanks to Katherine Brabon or cycle around Melbourne thanks to Allee Richards. Or simply escape to someone else’s life for a while. But it’s not escapism that makes the turning of each page an act of respite, it’s connection.  Author Kazuo Ishiguro described his work as: ‘One person writing in a quiet room, trying to connect with another person, reading in another quiet—or maybe not so quiet—room.’ It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

‘[I]n the end,’ Ishiguro said, ‘stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?’ Reading isn’t so much about escaping our lives but validating them. Of being seen and understood. In our quiet and not so quiet rooms, in our moments of exhaustion or delight, when we are at our breaking points, when we’re feeling inspired, or desperate or lonely. Reading becomes an act of empathy.

‘Language is power, and when we find the right way to frame our experience, we’re not being crushed by it,’ wrote Tegan Bennet Daylight in The Details. This is how words provide protection. A sanctuary isn’t just a temporary refuge. It’s a space that when left, makes the world that exists outside of it more bearable. Either because it has changed, or because we have.

I’m loath to provide a reading list, because so many exquisite books have provided comfort in the last few months. But here are a handful of books that spoke to me, either because they understood me or because they helped me understand the world around me. Maybe they will offer you something too?:

New Animal – Ella Baxter

Milk Fed – Melissa Broder

The Shut Ins – Katherine Brabon

Smokehouse – Melissa Manning

Whereabouts – Jhumpa Lahiri

The Performance – Claire Thomas

The Believer – Sarah Krasnostein

She is Haunted – Paige Clark

When Things Are Alive they Hum – Hannah Bent

Small Joys of Real Life – Allee Richards

Love & Virtue – Diana Reid

Everyone in this Room Will Someday be Dead – Emily Austin

Love Objects – Emily Maguire


Natasha Sholl is a writer (and reader) living in Melbourne. Her first book Found, Wanting is being published by Ultimo Press in 2022.

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