A friend for whom the expression passionate reader is a vast understatement sent me this quotation from Michelle de Kretzer’s The Hamilton Case: “Now I saw that I had fallen for an old enchantment. I had mistaken the world for a book.” He knew I would assume the second sentence applies to him. As I was considering the extent to which it also applies to me, I opened the latest issue of the monthly magazine published by my alma mater. The lead story bore the headline “Beyond Books” and proceeded to unfurl the usual clichés about how this distinguished university research library offered so, so much more than mere books. As someone who had roamed the stacks of that library as an undergraduate in love with books, I felt a bit betrayed. I’m not a luddite, or at least I don’t think I am, but I do love books and think they should be at the heart of a library. Had I myself “fallen for an old enchantment?”
It’s not that I mistake the world for a book. I know the difference, and I love both. In fact, I think each leads us into the other. This seems particularly true of mystery novels. Cozies, the kind I read and write, turn their worlds upside down through crimes like murder and then restore the world through clever detection, the solution of the mystery, and the punishment of the offender. I read them to affirm my faith in the human capacity to right wrongs and restore order in a fallen world. Okay, not to get too pompous here: I read mysteries because they’re so much fun. Ditto, for that matter, any fiction.
For me the connection between books and the world parallels that between a practice session and a real game. Whatever the sport, in practice you try out moves, hone your technique, experiment with new patterns. When you get out on the field against a real competitor—another team, a single opponent, or the mountain or ocean you’re up against–you’re prepared to bring all that practice together in the form of a polished game. Reading represents practice, a way of getting ready for the world. Reading fiction you explore character, see how various forces come together to motivate action, test moral principles, understand the consequences of behavior. You ready yourself for what we call the “real” world by playing in the fictional one.
And it works the other way around. Reading is enhanced by everything we experience outside it. That’s why we say a character in a novel reminds us of someone we know or why when two characters face a moral choice their dilemma resonates with us because of a situation we actually experienced.
This connection between books and the world seems to me at its most interesting with young children. My granddaughter, two and a half years old, can’t read of course but is read to so frequently and intensely that it’s fair to say her real world and book world are nearly one. The mouse dentist who pulls the tooth of the wily fox in William Steig’s Doctor De Soto is absolutely real to her, and she acts out that and other stories with her dolls and soft animals. When we see a parade of circus animals marching up her driveway they are as real as the ones she sees in the books I read to her. So when she’s read to she’s practicing life, and when she experiences life she brings to it what she’s seen in books.
Now it’s obviously possible that people can so conflate books and the world that they no longer know the difference and so become, literally, insane. But that’s an extreme response that, thankfully, few minds succumb to. For the rest of us, most of the time, books and the world have a productive and enriching relationship. The greater worry, I think, is that as reading seems to be declining in our culture, people will lose the ability to practice life through books and to enhance life itself through what they learn from books.
But in the meantime, for myself and my granddaughter and all those folks who love to read, I say it’s just fine to occasionally fall for the old enchantment and mistake the world for a book.