Previously we discussed how reading helps us live longer and improves our minds. This essay discusses how reading fiction helps us meet and befriend new people: authors. Authors similar and different from ourselves. Authors living and dead. Authors who may have shared that same crazy idea you had last week. You know the one.
As mentioned earlier, watching television, movies, even stage plays is essentially passive, certainly derivative. We watch how someone else–often several someones else and a bunch of technology–received, remixed and re-interpreted the author’s story. When we read a book, we engage the author’s mind with our minds.
When we read biography or history we look through the writing as through a filter at the reality behind the words. Reading fiction, we look through the words like a lens to see a new reality. A filter, in this sense, selectively blocks some of the image to make the rest more clear. A lens focuses all the available light to (hopefully) bring the entire object into focus.
Reading fiction is more like a mind meld than a data dump. As we immerse in the world, characters and activities described, we open the author’s mind. Her world becomes real. We connect with not just the characters but also her culture, hopes, fears and purpose.
We make a contract. The writer promises to create a realistic experience (though the rules of reality are negotiable), and the reader willingly suspends awareness that this story is not real in order to enter the writer’s mind. Successful, we transport to new worlds. When this doesn’t happen, either the writer has failed to maintain verisimilitude; or we didn’t enter the “spirit” of the story. (That merits a separate essay.)
Verisimilitude is achieved and maintained by immersion. Losing oneself in the story or argument of the author. By willingly suspending unbelief, we commune with the author. This complements the author’s obligation to create a plausible circumstance in which to get lost. When achieved, the reader understands more profoundly than just familiarity with the plot or main points. This is why we read original works preferably in the original language; not translations, abridgments or synopses. (And it’s why we avoid cover blurbs.)
We accept that the writer wants to connect with the reader and vice versa. When that link happens we discover a shared interest, need, or wish. We’re not alone. We’re friends; soulmates, even if divided by culture, economics, oceans or centuries. C. S. Lewis never said, “We read to know we are not alone,” but it’s a good idea (Written by William Nicholson for the movie Shadowlands.)
“It is the mark of a good fairy-story … that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any mean of literary art, and having a peculiar quality,” wrote J. R. R. Tolkien. “The particular quality of the “joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.”
When the author’s arrow strikes our heart–filling or breaking it–we have achieved that connection.
Next time we’ll discuss the underlying reality Tolkien mentioned and how reading fiction gives us access to it.