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The voyeuristic pleasure of reading

As much as we might like to deny it, we are all voyeurs to some degree. Whether it is in the nightly news or reality television, we love to see what other people are doing, and afterwards, we like to talk about it.

I am far from innocent of this curiosity  about the lives of others. I remember, during a brief stint living in Norwich in the UK, walking home after work in the sleet and seeing the front room of the houses I was passing lit up, with Christmas tree lights and televisions blaring. I was often tempted to sneak a glance as I walked past, wondering about the lives of those within.

Similarly, sitting on the train during the morning or evening commute, I am intrigued by the fleeting glimpses into backyards, balconied flats and tightly-spaced houses in new estates. Whose house is this? How do they live? I want to know their stories.

There is also an element of voyeurism in travel – seeing how other people live; the foods they eat, the houses in which they reside and the monuments they have built, whether for prayer, entertainment or retail.

And that voyeuristic tendency is not necessarily a bad thing. While Eleanor Roosevelt might have said, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people,” many of history’s greatest writers have been concerned about all three, not least the everyday thoughts, habits and actions of the characters who inhabit their books.

For, it is the condition of the reader to be curious about the lives of others, in order to inform their own behaviour, understand social mores and empathise with people whose lives are different to their own. And not least, be entertained. After all, other people can be VERY interesting. Who needs Big Brother when you can peer into the lives of monarchs of the past, warriors, killers, or, often just as intriguing – those who might resemble your neighbours?

Perhaps it is not surprising that Paula Hawkins was so successful when she touched on the voyeuristic tendency of her protagonist in The Girl on the Train.  In reading the book, it is difficult to resist being fascinated by the lives of those who live along the train line. The book provided the double treat of learning about the life of the protagonist, and those she watched.

One of the great and consistent attributes of writers is their curiosity about people; in either their inclination to listen closely to what they have to say, or to stand as a wallflower and take note of the behaviours and idiosyncrasies of others, who then appear in some guise their writing.

It can be intriguing and satisfying to read the stories of those who could be our neighbours in these books. Many suburban Australians found themselves engrossed in The Slap, which portrayed people like them, who had the same concerns, friendship groups and problems. It was almost as if we were reading about our own friends, or at least something that happened in our own streets.

Similarly, Big Little Lies exposes the lives of those who could be leaving next door, or whose children attend the same school as our own. In Transit, Rachel Cusk’s narrator details conversations that it is easy to imagine having ourselves. It is almost like overhearing the conversation at the next table in a restaurant, but more articulate and revealing.

Writer Susan Cain said that indulging her curiosity was one of the benefits of her line of work.

“I am insatiably curious about human nature. I feel very lucky that as a writer I get to learn so much about it just to do my job right.”

As nice as it can be to read about people whose experiences reflect our own, reading about lives that are very different can be just as satisfying.

In books, it is possible to peer into the private lives of people who have lived long ago, in faraway lands, and whose experiences are vastly different to your own.

I n my own reading, have experienced the court of King Henry VIII (Wolf Hall), the plague in an English village (The Year of Wonders), poverty in India (A Fine Balance), crime and punishment in Iceland (Burial Rites) and the extraordinarily wealthy in Singapore (Crazy Rich Asians). Then there are the unremarkable everyday lives lived in places far away, but which hold echoes of our own, such as the suburban malaise which Jonathan Franzen and John Updike write about to Philip Roth’s portrayal of small-town prejudice in The Human Stain.

While these books might be fictional, they hold truths about lives of others that would be difficult, if not impossible, to glean in any other way.

Author and entrepreneur James Altucher considered experiencing the lives of others to be one of the great benefits of fiction.

“Reading is the best return on investment. You have to live your entire life in order to know one life. But with reading you can know thousands of people’s lives for almost no cost. What a great return!”

It might be that the insight into other people’s worlds provided by fiction was the precursor to the extraordinary popularity of reality entertainment. Only now, the lives that we watch are not fictional, but real, albeit carefully edited to offer optimum entertainment and drama.

Last week, I found myself watching a show about the nightly meals of four different English families. Sometimes, it can be hard to fathom why watching or reading about other people going about their daily lives could possibly be interesting. But, in a way, it is the most interesting thing of all.

After all, the most intimate and profound moments are those that happen in the small moments of life, in conversation with our children at the dinner table, or in a thoughtful moment sitting alone in the sunshine. And perhaps that is why fiction provides such an engaging insight into the lives of others – it is a glimpse into a character’s interior in those moments that reveals much about its writer, and humanity as a whole.

So, I will continue to indulge my curiosity about the lives of others through an old and adored form of voyeurism – in the pages of a book.


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