Literature for life

“To read is to enter other points of view; it is to be an invisible observer of circumstances which might never be realised in one’s own life; it is to meet people and situations exceeding in kind and number the possibilities open to individual experience.”

– A.C. Grayling, The Meaning of Things

In my latest article for Together magazine, I wrote about how literature can challenge us and teach us how to live. It is pasted in below or you can click on the link.

My love for reading is really something that has come later in life. During childhood and adolescence, I viewed reading more as a chore then a leisure activity (apart from loving Roald Dahl’s books). In secondary school, I remember once discussing Harry Potter with my Head Mistress during a formal lunch. I will never forget her stern look when I told her that I just didn’t get why Harry Potter was so amazing (I tried reading ‘Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone’ and I got bored and gave up just after Harry arrived at Hogwarts).

I’ve gotten used to not finishing books, whether it’s because I did not have the courage to carry on due to the sheer sadness of the story (Primo Levi’s ‘If This is a Man’), the author’s neuroticism pervading through the book (Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’), a really annoying character (Jane Austen’s Mr Knightley, and Emma for that matter), or due to boredom (sorry, Harry). I have made peace with leaving books unfinished.

Saying that, reading is one of life’s pleasures. People often say that to travel broadens the mind and expands our horizons. I don’t disagree, but reading trumps this because it enables us to take the most important journey of all, the one inward.

Enjoy the article!

 Living by the book: Gemma Rose believes that literature challenges us and teaches us how to live

I am my father’s daughter. I can spend hours in a bookshop or library. I go in with the intention of getting one book but end up coming out with three or four more. I absolutely love stumbling upon hidden gems: books with catchy titles or front cover artwork, recommended books or other works by my favourite authors. These are really magical moments. I have to admit though, I still have books that I’ve bought which I haven’t got round to reading yet (but I still like showing them off on my bookshelf), paying heed to the German philosopher Schopenhauer: “One usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.”

Another magical moment is when I have let a book go and it finds its way back into my life again, sometimes years later. One such book is JK Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a set of short-stories for young wizards and witches written by Beedle the Bard, a mysterious figure from 15th-century Yorkshire, England, with an exceptionally luxuriant beard. A friend of mine had lent it to me back in 2008. I had been particularly taken by the story The Fountain of Fair Fortune, a tale of three ill-fortuned witches and a luckless knight striving to bathe in the fountain to cure their ills. One witch, Amata, had been abandoned by her lover and yearned to mend her broken heart. At the time, I, too, had been struggling with heartbreak, so I found this story particularly touching. This story stayed with me for a long time, and I would often recall it when I needed consolation. A couple of years later, I found the book in a charity shop staring right back at me. It’s been with me ever since.

Last year, there was a wave of press about how reading had been scientifically proven to make you more empathetic. The journal Science published a study by New York’s New School of Social Research, which showed that, in five experiments, persons who had read excerpts of literary fiction performed better in emotional intelligence tests than those who read nonfiction, popular fiction or nothing at all. Dan Hurley, science journalist and author of Smarter: The Science of Building Brain Power, has reported that there is a symbiotic relationship between reading and emotional intelligence, fluid intelligence (the ability to solve problems) and crystallised intelligence (knowledge that you build upon, such as vocabulary and information).

The importance, though, is not just what we read but how we read it. The study in Science used Chekhov, Don DeLillo and Téa Obreht as examples of literary fiction and Danielle Steel as an example of popular fiction. It is often acknowledged that popular fiction has the element of passivity in it, that perhaps the plot and the characters’ lives can be predictable. Rather, for reading to become an activity and for us to be thoroughly enriched by it, we ought to read books that challenge us, forcing us to reflect and to think for ourselves. The Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Canton recently wrote about the danger of treating literature as a consumer product, something easily attained and easily disposable without putting in the effort: “Consumerism, requiring its products to be both endlessly desirable and endlessly disposable, cannot make sense of art, which is neither.”

Stories – for me particularly, short stories – remind me that I am human: I make mistakes; I make assumptions; I accept life’s lemons with serenity one day; I fight against it the next. I experience unrequited love, abandonment and romantic regret. And, yet, I also feel the sensation of growing attachment and unconditional love. By reading stories, I am comforted that I am not alone and that I, too, am part of the imperfection that constitutes mankind.

Most recently, I made an assumption that could have cost me an important friendship. Before I let this assumption take hold of me, I brought myself back to the short story Painted Ocean, Painted Ship by Rebecca Makkai. The story focuses around a young woman who was becoming frustrated at her partner’s unwillingness to reassure her of her beauty and her worth. The woman realizes how her obstinate nature could have cost her the love of a good man: “The point, the moral, was how easy it was to make assumptions, how deadly your mistakes could be. How in failing to recognize something, you could harm it or kill it or at least fail to save it.”

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Living room letters: office gossip

There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.

– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

I have my first Living room letter! Depending on how often I get letters, I will try to respond to them on my blog. Before I begin giving my thoughts on this week’s letter, I just want to put out a few disclaimers. I’m not a counsellor nor a psychologist so I can only give suggestions or my take on things. If you need expert advice, go seek it! I accept no responsibility for your decisions or actions on the back of my advice. It is your life and my wish is that you live it in the most informed and best way you can. Now, onwards to my first letter!

Dear Gemma,

Lately I have been reading up a lot about the subject of office gossip. I have discovered that gossiping is in the end a part of social behaviour which we all engage in more or less. But, what do you do when such gossip is damaging your reputation and even your future because you are the subject of mean and untrue observations? What do you do when you cannot approach the person who is spreading these untruths nor talk to those people that are hearing this gossip and tell them that it is untrue?

– NIMB

Dear NIMB,

First of all, thank you for writing in and congratulations on being the first Living room letter! I am honoured that you chose to write to me.

Your letter encouraged me to research what gossip is. We tend to think of gossip as harmful and negative talk spread between small groups of people about someone in particular, whether in the office or outside of it. However, as you say, it is part of social behaviour. Thanks to evolution, gossiping forms an essential part of who we are.

The word gossip originates from the Old English word godsibb. Godsibb referred to the godparents of a child or peers similar to godparents to whom one was particularly close. The term then evolved from a person who enjoys idle chat (normally a woman) to the actual topic of conversations, which is what we mostly use the term for today.

Gossip evolved as a result of language. According to research, before we could communicate through language, we tended to do so via one-to-one grooming (tending to, caring for or touching one another). We would form groups to protect ourselves against predators. As the risk from predators rose, the groups would start to expand. Since communication through grooming was becoming inadequate as this took a lot more time and could only be done one-by-one, language started to develop. As groups got bigger, people would have to figure out who to trust and who not to; who was a better mate or hunter-gatherer. Consequently, those who had an interest in the lives of others had an advantage. They were the ones who survived and thus “gossip” survived with them.

Gossip is seen to have positive functions. It can be a useful and powerful way to transmit information about rules and social norms. It can curb the free-rider problem: it makes people more aware of others who are exploiting our good nature for their selfish gains. It allows us to avoid mistakes or uncalculated risks, knowing the unpleasant consequences that have fallen on those who have made them. Thus gossip can help us navigate better our own lives.

So far, gossip doesn’t sound too bad and it has been argued by the psychologist Robin Dunbar that it is an intrinsic part of human nature (as a result of natural selection), and that our societies would not be as sophisticated as they are, nor would they be able to function as well, without it.

But what actually is gossip? In the broad sense of the word, it is conversation about social and personal topics. But our contemporary understanding of gossip tends to have negative undertones. It is harmful for the person who is at the centre of the gossip and it is done with self-interest of the gossiper. One such definition of gossip states: “Gossip tends to be talk that gains attention for the speaker. The speaker will often adopt a confidential tone and is using the information about somebody else to be the center of attention and will impart the details in a way that tries to undermine the credibility or likability of another person. The details may be given with moralizing undertones and character assassination may be the top of the gossiper’s agenda. Often you are told more personal details than you care to know about. The motivations behind gossip include attention-seeking, self-inflation, exaggeration and a me-versus-them mentality;”.

Before I give my thoughts on your letter, I want to lay down a few findings about gossip, which you may find useful or helpful. First, that the emotional response of the person who hears the gossip relates little to how the person views the target of the gossip. How strongly the person reacts to the gossip is more to do with how much it resonates with them as a useful life-lesson. Secondly, people tend to be interested in gossip concerning those that are of the same (or higher) social status, age and gender as them. Women in particular are more obsessed with gossip about other females than men are about other males. Thirdly, people tend to prefer hearing about the misfortunes of their peers rather than of their fortunes (although this differed if it concerned family and friends). Finally, people that engage in gossip regularly are seen as having less social power and are less liked.

Having considered all of the above, if I was in your shoes, the first question I would ask myself is, “Is it worth confronting the person that is telling these rumours and the people who believe them?” To unpack this question a bit more, I would also ask myself, “Will anyone remember this gossip in a year’s time?”

I do not know what the gossip about you is but it sounds serious if you say that it is damaging your reputation and possibly your future. Saying that, I think it is important to take a step back and really think about the consequences of confronting the gossiper and the believers of the gossip. What are you hoping will be achieved by confronting them? And will such confrontation realistically achieve it?

Since evidence shows that a regular gossiper is not really liked, I would also consider what type of person the gossiper is. If they regularly engage in gossip, then chances are that people don’t take them seriously and merely pay them lip service. On the other hand, if the gossiper is actually someone who is well-regarded then I think it would be possible to speak with them in a non-aggressive and clear manner about how these rumours are making your professional life uncomfortable. If the gossiper is of good standing then I assume that they would welcome the rectification. I wonder however whether such a person would engage in malicious gossip in the first place.

If I was going to confront the gossiper or the believers, I would have to be certain that they are the right people to confront in addition to being certain as to what actually was being said. If I got these wrong, it may make matters much worse.

For workplace advice, I regularly turn to the Guardian’s Dear Jeremy. In one such scenario, a cruel joke at work was made about the letter-writer. The writer wondered whether it was best to make a formal complaint. Jeremy advised, “The thing to hang on to, I suspect, is that stories of this kind – like most things in life – do, over time, naturally decay. As children probably still say dismissively, “That’s stale buns”. If left alone, unrefreshed, rumour and malicious gossip gradually lose their ability to capture anybody’s interest and attention. So your guiding principle should be: do everything you can to avoid giving new legs to an ageing lie.

By confronting such gossip, one may run the risk of adding fuel to the fire, causing others to believe that there is some truth to it. Whilst it is hard to say nothing at all and hurtful to endure, it is even harder for the gossip to sustain its momentum, or for anyone to discern to any extent what is fact from what is fiction.

If you do feel that this is something worth confronting others about then here are some possible tips on how best to do it. Whatever you decide to do, please make sure that you are fully informed of your decision and of the ensuing consequences.

I hope that my take on things has assisted you in some way. I wish you the very best of luck whatever you choose to do. On a lighter note, imagine working in an environment which banned office gossip altogether, as one workplace did.

Best wishes,

Gemma