Remember the joy of reading?
If you loved books as a child, you know the feeling. Immersion isn’t the right word because that implies that you keep something for yourself. It’s more of a complete melting of lines. You are in the story. The story world is the real world. You are so lost that coming back to your mother’s world with the call of ‘dinner’s ready’ is absolutely confusing and annoying. For me it was anything from Boy’s Life to Spider Man to Johnny Wins the Game to Ivanhoe. Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me stay up late enough to read my fill so I thwarted them like lots of kids did: I would wait until they were asleep, turn on the radio to the soothing strains of Herman’s Hermits, and read until I was done with the book.
As a grown-up, I’ve experienced this just a few times. I’ve only read part of one Stephen King book. I don’t know the title or the story but a group of plants uproot themselves and start chasing someone. I was so crap-your-pants-scared that I put the book down and have been afraid to touch another ever since. That door stopper with the clown on the cover? I won’t even let that thing in my house. But sheesh. I’m a damned scientist. Plants chasing people? That’s scary? That’s just stupid. But I was so drowned in the book that it was real enough to me. Two other books caught me in the same way. One was Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy and the other was History, A Novel by Elsa Morante. I’ve gone back to both as an older grown-up and found them to be less of what I remembered. Which is just fine. We change and we age and so do our tastes.
What steals your joy as a grownup?
All this to say that there are three wonderful, short essays in the New York Times this week about just the topic. The first two are in the weekly feature Bookends where two writers opine on a topic. This week’s is Is It Harder To Be Transported by a Book as Your Get Older? In the first part, Francine Prose talks about the veil between book-worlds and real-worlds. I’m fascinated by her point that “for many children, the line between reality and the imagination is thinner and more porous than it is for most adults. When a 4-year-old talks to her mermaid doll, she is talking to a mermaid.” She goes on to say that, as we age, and as reality sets in (presumably a reality of sick children and bills and careers), we begin cross-referencing our reading. We step out of the page and become observers and not partakers of a world where mermaids talk back to us. We start to compare this character with that one and this plot with this book. For me, inept as I am with commas, I scan the page for correct usage. (How sad is that!) This leads directly to Benjamin Moser’s observation that it gets harder to enjoy reading for reading’s sake as one puts on the mantle of a professional writer.
The third essay is a quick interview with Mary Roach, author of a series of non-fiction let-me-explain-this-kind-of-creepy-stuff books. She is asked about the last great book she read. She says that she ‘missed my flight for literature’ reading Tim Johnston’s Descent. She was so engrossed in the book that she missed the boarding announcement for her flight. That’s happened to me, too, but I attribute it to old age and hearing loss.