Soft Paws by @kelleygtattoo.

“The only people who are against escapism are the jailors.”

Google wasn’t sure if that quote was Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, CS Lewis, or a slew of other authors. I suspect, like most quotes that resonate, people just wanted to lend it credibility.

It’s a good quip for when someone tells you that reading fantasy is “just escapism.” I don’t believe that fantasy (or any genre fiction, or novels, or poetry) are necessarily escapism, but I understand where that view comes from: when people’s lives are terrible, fantasy offers them relief. There’s a reason people dive into Valdemar or Harry Potter when their parents die, when they get a cancer diagnosis, when depression is taking over. Engaging the creative part of the brain makes everything feel able to be handled.

I’ve certainly read my fair share of books to cope, though my love of reading really began with Sherlock Holmes. Before 4th grade, I still read a lot: Frankie! (a gryphon classic), The Laughing Dragon, Jeremy Thatcher Dragon Hatcher, all the usual suspects for Millennial children. But in 4th grade, I picked up The Complete Sherlock Holmes, over a thousand pages long, and I read through it all.

And I thought: “If I can read a thousand page book, I can read anything.” So I did. I read all the books on the shelf in my dad’s office, starting with Lee Iaccoca’s biography on the automotive industry. I started using my allowance to buy books at the local Walden Books.

(For those who don’t remember Walden Books, it was owned by the same company as Borders. For those who don’t remember Borders, it was like Barnes ‘n Noble except constantly in bankruptcy. The salient point is that Walden Books had free coffee, which was really nice for a 4th grade saving all of his money for novels. I drank a lot of coffee back then, which is why I’m so tall now.)

I stepped into Walden Books with three weeks of savings (read: $9) and the first thing I saw was the Michael Whelan artwork for Sunrunner’s Fire. It was just on a bookmark display, so I went to try to locate the associated book. That led me to Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince series and the entire fantasy shelf: Mercedes Lackey, Irene Radford, Andre Norton, Anne McCaffrey, all of the classics. I seem to remember that The Silver Gryphon had a huge display back then, so I picked up the first book in the series, The Black Gryphon.

I’d say the rest is history, but that’s not really the case. At school, a friend had a huge fantasy collection of novels and let anyone borrow them. My dad’s cancer returned and he passed away. My aunt came to live with us and I was moved out of my room to a sleeping bag in my dad’s old office. The friends of the family who were helping out with my brother and I also passed away the next year. While fantasy had always been a joy, it became a bit of an escape for several years as I learned to cope with death as a fact of life.

During that time, I’m not sure I really enjoyed the books I was reading. I’d get trash bags of used books that people were giving away and go through them. Obviously, if you’re a kid and your parent has passed away, therapy is the best option. But reading helped fill the time when I couldn’t do anything else or when I felt out of place, like having been moved from my room into an office.

I don’t want to downplay the role books played in my life during that time. Even now, when someone gets hit with a life roll as an adult and needs time to process and recover, I suggest they borrow the Valdemar books off of my shelf to help them cope. It’s worked many times.

But I didn’t really enjoy reading during those times. It’s hard to enjoy anything when you’re overwhelmed. It was only later, once I got a room to myself again, that I began to read for enjoyment instead of survival again.

I just wanted to take a moment to say that it’s okay to read to help you cope, and it’s okay to read for enjoyment, and there’s nothing wrong with escapism. Fantasy is great for that, but that’s not all it is. When you get back to a good place, definitely reread some of the things that helped you cope and just take a moment to enjoy them. The black gryphons and dragon princes of the literary world read just as well happy as they did when you were overwhelmed.

(The artwork of Soft Paws is by Kelley Goodwin @kelleygtattoo on Twitter. It seemed a good match as I’d spent so many hours on AIM as a teen chatting with Kelley about gryphons and fantasy.)