This may sound strange, but when I get stressed out, I read books about the American Civil War: memoirs, journals, biographies, histories. For some reason, combat and camp life are equally interesting; reading about it always makes me feel better.
It’s an escape to some degree, yes, but what it comes down to is this: No matter how stressful or unhappy life can sometimes get, at least I know life is better for me than it was for those soldiers, who faced hardships far worse than I could possibly fathom: bad food, exhausting marches, seemingly endless tedium interrupted by sudden violence, the loss of dear friends with sometimes little or no warning, and the very real chance that a simple cough might turn into an illness from which they might not recover. By comparison, even at the lowest ebb, my life looks pretty grand.
One of the more stressful times in my life occurred many years ago when my wife and I were searching for a house. At the time, the real estate market in Seattle was hot. Houses in our price range were going fast. That meant you had to be on call if a new house came on the market. Waiting even a day would likely mean it would be snatched up before you had a chance to see it. And if you toured a house you liked, it meant you had to make an offer immediately. There was no night’s sleep to mull over your decision. Frequently, with good houses that needed little or no work, there were multiple offers.
Reading novels kept me sane. I was at the time working my way through what would become my favorite book series of all time: Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. Before then, I could never read two books by the same author back to back. Even if I loved one book, I needed a little variety before I moved on to the next one.
Not so with the Aubrey/Maturin series. I remember fondly finishing one book, closing the cover and setting it down, then immediately picking up and starting the next one with scarcely a pause. Luckily for me, there were plenty of books in the series.
After three months and forty-nine house showings, my wife and I purchased a home. By the end I remember being utterly grateful to Mr. O’Brian. He had given me a profound gift, offering me the means not just to escape reality but just enough distraction that life became bearable in a very stressful time.
I remember thinking that this, more than anything else, is what I wanted to do as I writer: to give someone the gift that Mr. O’Brian gave me. A place to go when life wasn’t comfortable. Characters to laugh and cry with, surrogate friends who I loved as if they were the most cherished kindred spirits.
Has a book ever done that for you? Where do you escape? Please let me know in the comments below.
Brian Mercer is the author of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body Experience (Llewellyn, 2004) and the Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, he is the webmaster of and occasional contributor to Author Magazine. When he’s not working as a programmer analyst or exploring alternate dimensions out of body, he can be found writing novels. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara.