When you read a lot, it is unavoidable to be influenced by the world these books create. This is not always a bad thing, but how do you make sure you keep a grip on reality?
People always complain that social media give unrealistic expectations to my generation. However, this problem has been around for a long time. Madame Bovary (1856), by Flaubert, is one of my favourite books, and I always read it as a reaction to a generation influenced by romantic novels. Emma Bovary has read too many of those novels and develops a view of the world that is just not realistic. Trying to give meaning to her life, to find true love, she becomes this impossible person because she can only act in very dramatic ways: she doesn’t know how to be reasonable, because her books aren’t reasonable.
This is a pretty dark view on literature, but not everybody is such a pessimist. Books can also help us understand emotions better. By reading a lot we become better, more rounded persons ourselves, because we learn to understand situations and characters. It also helps us relax, by giving us a chance to escape to another world.
But how do you find that balance? How can you read all these wonderful books and still make sure you only get influenced the right way? It can help to read a lot of different books, so you don’t get stuck in just one perspective. However, sometimes this isn’t enough. There will always be stories that resonate more or less, ideas that catch on, feelings you identify with. It is easy to see a validation of your own ideas in literature.
The problem is, we want to be entertained. Most plots have a conflict, because that’s just a really good way to have a plot. And for a conflict, you need extremes. When you are writing about love, it’s easy to write about an incredibly romantic love, or about a lost love. There’s a lot less to read about good, but routine relationships. As a result, when you are unsure about a relationship literature either confirms that you are in an incredible rut (“Your love is as dead as the one in this book!”) or that you are doing it completely wrong (“Wait, you are not as extremely in love as these two characters? What is wrong with you?!”).
It is important that we keep remembering that fiction is fiction, no matter how realistic it is. Very few books depict a life that resembles yours, so mirroring yourself to a fictional character is most of the time just not very useful. Actually, now I’m thinking about it, I think I am going to reread Ulysses. With its accurate description of day-to-day life, it is one of the few realistic portrayals of a loving, but not that exciting relationship that I know of. And I kind of need to read about that right now.