I remember in childhood fancying that novels were magic portals to faraway lands and times. It’s a hackneyed concept — I know — but, with vivid imagination, I would open a book and enter a twilight terrain filled with other people’s conflicts, other people’s stories, other people’s losses, other people’s loves. Sometimes those characters were larger-than-life and, other times, the characters themselves were nothing special but there was something remarkable in what they experienced or in what they did. It was a tame class of voyeurism to derive pleasure from peeping in on others’ lives, but boy did I love it.
Hours upon hours would disintegrate as the pages turned and, when the book was finished, it took me a long time to come back to reality. It was not — and still is not — uncommon for me to develop a strong connection to a fictional character. Days after I’ve finished a book, I sometimes feel a sense of emptiness, much like the absence one feels when a loved one has departed.
A really good writer could paint images in my mind that would stay with me for years. I read The Lord of the Rings when I was 11 or 12 and was so caught up in the story that I read the last half of the voluminous tome in one six-hour sitting. Right before Eowyn slays the Witch-King of Angmar, the Witch-King says that no living man may hinder him, and Eowyn tears off her helmet and proclaims, “but no living man am I! You look upon a woman!” That part of the story emblazoned an image on my mind of Eowyn pulling off her helmet and her golden hair blowing majestically in the wind, with a spark of electricity flashing through her eyes right before she drives her sword into the Witch-King’s cavernous face. Still, decades later, if someone mentions The Lord of the Rings, I am visited by that image and it gives me goosebumps.
Sometimes I am moved to intense emotion by the characters’ experiences. I remember, as a child, reading a short novel about a boy who befriends a girl who experienced violent trauma and refuses to speak. As she comes to trust the boy, she opens up and I felt a great happiness that she was overcoming her fears. And then something terrifying happens, and she withdraws back into her shell and refuses to acknowledge the boy or anyone else. I cried uncontrollably for about half an hour.
In Un Saison en Enfer — a tiny dual-text Penguin edition of which I used to, as a teenager, carry around with me wherever I went, as if it were some prized jewel — Arthur Rimbaud made reference to “the alchemy of the word.” The phrase spoke to a part of me that felt that writers were a type of magician, transforming banal old words into works of beauty. I read Dorothy Sayers’ translation of Dante’s Inferno when I was 14, and can remember getting caught up in the flowing poetry. I got my hands on the text in the original Italian and was astounded that Sayers could capture the fluidity of the dark and sibilant 14th century Italian verse and still remain reasonably true to the meaning.
It is not that I am not moved to these same heights of emotion when I read now, but I feel a sense of nostalgia about some of my earliest experiences wrapping myself in the bewitching allure of a well-written novel. Picking up a book is like spending time with an old friend. There is almost a romance about it as I delight in the smell and feel and sound of the pages.
Today, I am thankful for books: perhaps the only real magic in an often dull world.
What are your memories of books and reading? Please share your stories with me in the Comments.