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Introverts can be saved by the book

High school years can be a minefield for introverts. During a typical day, opportunities to socialise are many, from arrival in the morning until the after-school pick-up. But opportunities for silence or solitude are few, with even class time offering little respite, particularly when group projects are involved.

Although I enjoyed many social aspects of school, as an introvert I found some days to be particularly long and exhausting. During these years, books really came into their own for me, as I retreated into the school library to recharge my social batteries. I had always loved to read, but now they provided me with an extra gift – a reason for spending time alone.

Since then, books have continued to be my go-to when I have needed time out from the social fray. While I adore chatting, joking and gossiping, and have even developed a soft spot for small talk at kinder drop-offs, like many introverts, I need to balance these activities with solitude, often in the company of a book.

It is no surprise that reading is attractive to many introverts, but not just because it is a largely solitary pastime.

Literature also provides the opportunity to passively become involved with the inner lives of characters, without requiring readers to deplete their own social energy. When we read, we don’t have to front up and engage in small talk before we can move on to conversation of more depth or meaning. After all, while small talk might be a version of hell for some introverts, this does not mean that they are not interested in people.

Psychologist Laurie Hedgoe summed it up when she said: “Let’s clear one thing up: Introverts do not hate small talk because we hate people. We hate small talk because we hate the barrier it creates between people.”

In reading, the characters’ deepest thoughts are exposed on the page, and this is an important part of the appeal of literature for many introverts, as well, of course, as for many extroverts. We are exposed to the truth of human nature, without subterfuge or shame.

Another aspect of reading that is attractive to introverts is that it provides the opportunity to see themselves reflected in the stories, as many characters, and authors themselves, can be described as introverts. While introverts might tend not to broadcast their experiences and thoughts widely, books have the ability to represent their perspectives.

Some of my favourite introverts (or characters who I consider to be introverts) in literature include Jane Eyre, Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and Jay Gatsby. All are watchful and thoughtful, with complex inner lives. Although Gatsby throws huge parties, he is far more comfortable in the background, watching as party goers celebrate, only engaging closely with a chosen few guests. Jane Eyre is happiest with a book and her own thoughts, while Mr Darcy clearly prefers the company of those to whom he is closest than a crowd.

In Psychology Today, Sophia Dembling wrote about the role introverted book characters had played in her childhood, providing role models whose personalities she could identify with, including Harriet in Harriet the Spy and Sara in The Little Princess. She said: “Introverts don’t make great television, since so much of the excitement in their lives is invisible to others. They do turn up in movies occasionally, since films can paint characters slower and with more nuance. But books are full of introverted protagonists.”

The list of writers considered to be introverts is long and impressive, including JK Rowling, JD Salinger and even children’s writer Dr Seuss, who was afraid to meet his young readers in case they were disappointed because he was so quiet.

Cormac McCarthy was a famously introverted writer, giving his first televised interview in 2007 after a writing career spanning four decades. Harper Lee only rarely made public appearances, an on being inducted to the Alabama Academy of Honour, said, “Well, it’s better to be silent than to be a fool.”

I remember calling a crime writer to ask if he was interested in being interviewed after his book won the Miles Franklin Award, and he couldn’t have put the phone down quickly enough. Perhaps, another introverted writer.

Popular author John Green explained the tendency for writers to be introverted, “Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.”

The quiet and solitary joy of reading for introverts is not without its limitations. In direct contrast with FOMO, introverts are constantly battling the temptation to stay home and miss out on social events they had planned on attending. Although I enjoy little more than a night out with friends, I often leave home wistfully contemplating the ease and comfort of staying in with a book. I rarely regret the decision to go out and I have to keep reminding myself to resist the pull of my introversion.

However, Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says introverts should not feel guilty about their need for solitude: “You might [still] feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favor of a good book.”

“….Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured…Spend your free the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to.”

Of course, not all introverts love to read, and many extroverts love books for the very same reasons as introverts do. And I am often pleased to have put down my book and enjoyed the company of family or friends, whether that might mean engaging in small talk or in more in-depth conversation. And I know that, happily, the end of the afternoon, night or weekend, my book will be waiting for me on my bedside table.

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