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Books: Why reading is good for mind and body

It's a scientific fact: reading is good for you. Hannah Gregory talks to best-selling Cambridge thriller writer Sarah Vaughan about the power of books to benefit mind, body and soul

Reading has been proven beneficial for mind and body (61044347)
Reading has been proven beneficial for mind and body (61044347)

Hunkering down with a good book is good for the soul. There is a reason that children are encouraged to read from a young age, and we know that turning a few pages while we wind down in bed promotes better sleep. There are even trends sweeping TikTok where partying is out but curling up with your favourite novel is most definitely in. Viral movements such as the #75hardchallenge encourages participants to read at least 10 pages of any book to further work towards becoming the best version of themselves.

Whilst we have an inkling of what is good for us, sometimes it is best to be presented with the hard facts and so the good people behind Sky Arts Book Club did the research and found that more than half of people in the UK say reading is vital to their mental health and one in three say reading can be a transformative experience. For me, wrapping up in a blanket with a good book while the rain thrashes down outside, fire roaring and French press of coffee on the go, is one of life’s greatest luxuries.

On my quest to learn more about how reading can positively affect our mental wellbeing, I spoke to local author Sarah Vaughan about her experiences on the subject - and discovered how the creative process not only helps keep her sane, but also allows her to address the dark themes of her past.

Following an 11-year career as senior reporter and political correspondent for The Guardian, covering stories such as the Soham murders, the disappearance and murder of Sarah Payne and the opening of the Stephen Lawrence trial, Sarah recognised that she was nearing her limit of being at the forefront of the darkest of news.

The offer of voluntary redundancy came about and with it a move to Cambridgeshire. On the night of her 40th birthday, she was asked “What are you going to do this year?” and replied with wine-fuelled gusto: “I’m going to write a book.” And so, as her youngest embarked on primary school, she began forging a career as a crime writer.

Fast forward 10 years and five books, Sarah now sits at her writing desk where she fondly looks at a photo of her on set with Sienna Miller and Michelle Dockery during filming of Anatomy of a Scandal, her book that was optioned by Netflix and subsequently went on to become one of the streaming site’s number one shows. Reputation, her fifth book, has just landed in paperback and word on the street is that the team behind the adaptation of Anatomy are keen - and there’s a whole lot more in the pipeline.

Sarah Vaughan (61044348)
Sarah Vaughan (61044348)

When I ask Sarah if she relies on the creative process to benefit her mental health, thinking particularly of her former career, she is quick to recognise that during her time as a reporter, her brain was so focused on current affairs and events that she didn’t have the headspace to think creatively.

In the interim period between writing for The Guardian and becoming an author, Sarah dipped her toe into the world of freelancing, a world that wasn’t for her, and in turn says she felt she lost her sense of self and identity. Her character had been so tied up in a world of bylines and page leads that this new world, one of time, space and fallen pitches, felt a little alien. And while we may not all have been penning reports that landed on the front page every other day, I think many can relate to a loss of self when a huge part of your life is occupied by work.

But as the research by the Sky Arts Book Club has shown, the creative process can help to fill that void. Of people asked, a quarter said they would have struggled to get through the pandemic (I know, we’re still saying that word) without being able to escape reality and turn to a book. Sarah tells me that, be it reading or writing, “when it’s working well, it is a great distraction from everyday preoccupation of life and I certainly feel a lot more fulfilled creating things.”

As a child, Sarah explains she always had a yearning to be creative, whether it be writing short stories or practising the flute daily - she had dreams of becoming a flautist - and then in later life, as she welcomed motherhood, she discovered a love of baking (enter her first book: The Art of Baking Blind). There has always been a need to create.

As we talk about the benefits of reading, she recalls how, in a previous life, one before her marriage, if she ever got dumped or needed to get over a guy, she could lose herself in a book and everything would be ok. “Reading is an amazing way to immerse yourself in a different world and escape whatever you might be worrying about, so I do tend to read at night,” she continues.

“I am a mum with teenage kids and a constant to-do list and when thinking about all the things I failed to tick off that day, it’s a really good way of shutting that down and thinking about something else.”

Another observation: on a recent family holiday abroad, the first in two and a half years, Sarah’s first few days were plagued with anxiety dreams; when her brain was finally being told to rest, it grasped on to anything it could to worry about. To remedy this, Sarah read - and not only read, but read books she knew would transport her to a completely different world, such as Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, Alan Johnson’s Crete or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Long Island, until eventually the anxiety dreams subsided and relaxation was allowed to take its place.

In times of extreme change and unrest - at the time of conducting this interview, we had witnessed the change of Prime Minister and death of a monarch in the last week - Sarah comments: “It became very apparent to me why books like this and writers like Agatha Christie are and will continue to be so popular: it is a puzzle that people can figure out and resolve and have a sense of achievement.”

I was keen to understand if exploring the dark themes that her novels gravitate towards impacts Sarah’s day-to-day life. We are all familiar with the stereotypical angst-ridden writer, plagued by the trials and tribulations of their subject matter. It seemed near-impossible to me that someone who explores rape, deceipt, misogyny and online abuse, the germ of which is rooted in first-hand experience, could be so unequivocally cheery and breezy. But, with lightness in her voice, Sarah simply states: “The nature of having teenage children, a dog and a husband means I can’t be immersed in these worlds.” And I guess in that lies a lesson for us all - no matter how dark life gets, we must hold on to the things that anchor us into a better place.

As our discussion returns to the grim nature of the news stories Sarah covered as a journalist in her early career, it becomes apparent to me - but apparently not to her (knew I should have been a psychologist) - that the books she now chooses to pen could be a coping mechanism for the earlier chapters of her life. In a world of fast-paced journalism, there was no help on offer, no decompression, stress was manifesting itself physically.

Couple with this being a young professional woman in the late Eighties through to Noughties, where frequent sexual harrasment was unfortunately par for the course, is it any wonder that on a subconscious level, Sarah found a way to fictionalise the atrocities she witnessed and take back control? She expertly transitioned from reporting on a crime where she would never know the outcome, to retelling the story on her terms, bringing justice to characters where needed and, in turn, doing a bit of self-healing in the process.

I could carry on the conversation all day - not only is Sarah fascinating, but also inspiring: changing careers at 40, being able to reflect on a period of time that could have been damaging with grace and gratitude, speaking about her accolades with humility - but alas, word counts are a thing and this writer is challenged by them at the best of times.

I think it comes down to this: the world can be a tough place sometimes and it’s okay to say that, but it is important to remember that there are things we can do to help ourselves. Whether we need escapism from past demons or current affairs, we can lock into the little things that make life worth living - walking the dog, time with family, baking a cake and, when we need to shut off from the world and immerse ourselves in the lives of characters that are created for us, we can do just that, thanks to wonderful writers like Sarah Vaughan.

The third series of The Sky Arts Book Club featuring Sarah Vaughan is available on Sky Arts and Freeview. Sarah Vaughan’s latest book, Reputation, is out now.

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