How to Read a Book

When I was a young teenager I read T.H. White’s wonderful fantasy novel The Once and Future King, which was later remade as the Disney cartoon The Sword in the Stone (the film is not a patch on the book.)  And I vividly remember the sequence in which the young Arthur is taught by Merlin how to swim as a fish, and then to fly as a owl.

I not only remember the scenes, I remember how it felt. I can feel the water on my flesh, the wind in my hair; even now I can evoke those memories at will.  I can also visualise the bookshelf on which the book was placed in my local library.  Indeed, I also remember the covers of the books by Willard Price about two American boys who travel around the world having adventures – on an African safari, on a whaling ship and so forth. (Their job was to collect animals for their – humane – zoo, not to kill them.) I can’t remember the names of the characters, or the plots; but I remember being on a whaling ship. And I remember being roared at by a lion!

It should be borne in mind that I have a really crap memory.  I bump into old school friends and can’t recollect them at all.  I once lost my car for half a day because I forgot where I parked it.

But I remember the emotions I felt whilst reading books that I read decades ago.  And that’s because I wasn’t just reading the story: I was in the story. I surrendered myself to the tale, body and soul and all five (and sometimes six) senses.

I was mulling about this the other day after watching James Cameron’s movie Avatar.  I think I give nothing away when I reveal that the premise of the film is that the crippled hero has an ‘avatar’ who is a blue alien.  This clever conceit allows the audience watching the film to become, imaginatively, an alien, for those crucial CGI scenes on the planet.  In other words, you start by imagining you’re a human; then it’s a small step to imagining you’re a human who, via a virtual gizmo, inhabits an alien’s body.

This is all good fun, but there’s a much more straightforward way to achieve the same effect.  Just read an SF book whose central characters are aliens; and you can be those aliens, without any intervening technology.  (And without laborious exposition either.) 

This is the joy of reading, and this is the power of the imagination.  Forget the internet, forget the iPod, the iSlate, or the iWhateverthenextthingis.  The imagination can top all these.  It can turn words on a page into vivid synaesthetic experience; it can make us feel pain and rage and heat and cold and lust and the tender touch of skin on skin.  The words may be in pBook or eBook form or they may be on a computer screen; but the real magic happens in the space behind your two staring eyes. 

However, it’s a fact that some people read differently to the way that you and I read. (I’m taken it for granted that anyone who’s on this website loves reading. If not, you must be seeking a pron site with a very similar name.)  The way we read is: intensively, and unconditionally, and obsessively.   We want to lose ourselves in worlds, we want to be captivated by concepts, we want to care about and root for characters.  And in pursuit of this intensity of experience, we’ll patiently read all sorts of crap books till we find the books that truly and deeply speak to us.

And within this community – our community – of bookaholics, there are some who are, frankly, even more obsessive than I am.  I’ve been looking at a thread on an American site called Book Blogs in which readers describe what lengths they will go to in order to read a book.  They will cancel  meetings; read while driving in traffic; read while waiting for medical appointments; some people even read in the shower. (There are, as you may already know,  two shower-reading techniques: 1) read while the conditioner is in your hair and the water from the shower is off and 2) read while the shower is on, but tilt your body away from the spray.)

So far I’ve not heard of anyone who reads while having sex; but let’s be honest now, have you never ever, whilst in the throes of passion,  thought for a moment or two about the book you’re currently reading?  (No? Never? Is it just me? [Thank heaven my wife isn’t reading this blog.])

There have in fact been a number of serious academic studies of how people read books.  One of the best I’ve ever read is a seminal paper called ‘Readers and their Romances’ by Janice Radway, based on a study of a American book group of women who love romance fiction.

I’m not myself a fan of romance fiction – we’re talking here really hardcore romance of a highly formulaic kind, not novels that happen to have romance in the story.  But I’m always fascinated to hear about anyone who loves books; and what I learned from this study is that the women who love ‘trashy’ romances are smart and sophisticated and read this stuff because they, sophisticatedly and for complex emotional reasons, love this stuff.   They don’t read these books because they don’t know better; they read them because they want to live that experience.  (Tortured by love; ignored by the man you love; quarrelling with the man you love; and, finally, united forever with the man you love; or various permutations thereof. )

Reading is a form of mediated daydreaming; and these daydreams works for those readers, which is absolutely and entirely cool. 

However,  after reading Radway’s paper, I’ve always been haunted by some of the conclusions that emerged from her interviews.  She discovered in particular that the members of this reading group (they were literally a group, known as ‘Dot’s group’) often felt let down by the books in their beloved genre that were actually being published, but still bought them because, ”Sometimes even a bad book is better than nothing.” 

This to me is  a sobering affirmation of the power of book-obsession; these women would sit and read terrible romances, because they wanted to read good romances. And as they read, they were constantly making allowances and imagining how they would react and feel if the author had written the darn story properly in the first place.   (Note: the study was done in the early 1980s; things in that genre might well be different now…I really wouldn’t know!)

This is active reading at its most extreme:  it’s reading the book as it ought to be, not as it actually is.

My point here is that there’s no other field of activity where consumers are so astonishingly forgiving. Imagine eating an awful meal in a restaurant, and then going back the following night to eat a second awful meal, because it’s the only restaurant in town…

In the world of SF and F,  I don’t think this degree of reader-frustration exists – the books genuinely do deliver the experience their readers want, whatever that might be.  (At least, I certainly hope that’s the case!)

But the undeniable truth is:  lovers of books really love books.  And when a novel delivers on its promises and potential – when we believe the world and are lost in it – we don’t need virtual reality booths or avatars to dwell on alien planets, or inhabit the bodies of blue-skinned Na’vi.  We can just be  there.

Or  we can be – somewhere else. In a medieval society; in the Shire; or on a planet where dragons dwell.

Reading, in other words,  is the first and best virtual experience technology, and [I’m sorry, I don’t have time to finish this blog – I have to get back to my chapter….!]