There is suffering which comes from pain, physical as well as mental affliction. There is also suffering which comes from boredom, ennui and monotony. Each needs its own form of consolation. The former seeks to soothe by keeping out the source of pain. The latter, seeing there is no source of pain, seeks to fill the void with meaning and distraction.
Literature has always come to the rescue of those who are down. Those who are in prison, hospital, on death row, waiting for the worst kind of news – but also those who can’t sleep, who can’t seem to take pleasure in anything, who think nothing is worth doing, who can’t find anything to do.
While Plato and Boethius found their consolation from death in philosophy, countless medieval European aristocrats, from the freezing Vikings to the castellans of southern Europe, devoured thousands of lines of chivalric poems during hours in inactivity and tedium, nugatory works of literature in the eyes of the high-minded clerics.
In the age before the Internet, Netflix and social media, books, portable and accessible, were the chief means of consolation from boredom. There’s always a book around when there’s nothing much to do. In pre-modern times, however, books were neither always portable, nor accessible, so having one around was like the early adopters of the latest digital media. Things are young, and then they become old.
We seem to have suddenly found ourselves with a lot of time on our hands – and a Trojan horse in our midst. As travelling has stopped – except that from the bedroom to the living room via kitchen –, we may seek consolation in books which promise to carry us away from our houses on magic word-weaved carpets. While our lived experience is constantly shrinking, we might want to live vicariously through book characters and see a different kind of world through a narrator’s magnifying glass.