Journeying through fiction

Critics have said that the best fiction is that which is so well written, readers feel they are actually there in the scenes observing the action and hearing the dialogue. We read books, I believe, when we need to read them even though our choices may be subconscious. This need probably includes escapist fiction, though I see that more as an emergency pain killer or probiotic than a self-improvement journey.

A variety of book genres resonate with me. When there are lessons, large and small, and vicarious experiences, large and small, within them, then the process of reading becomes a positive journey. There may or may not be spiritual implications even though the story is providing something we need. We don’t always consciously know what we need; yet, the reading provides it. In fact, since I operate out of intuition and chaos, I tend to think that books meet our needs when we simply read them to enjoy them rather than when we read them thinking they’ll meet specific needs in our lives.

Apparently, those needs are best met when we allow ourselves to be swept away by the story, to read it without distractions and to visualize the scenes as they happen rather than intellectually reading the words the way we might if we were studying a book for a college course. When I read, I pretend that I am right there in the middle of the action. After reading a few pages, it’s no longer pretence because the action really seems to be wherever I am.

In spite of several cataract surgeries, my eyes tire more quickly these days than they did years ago. So, I’m likely to shut them for a few minutes to give them a rest. When I do this, I continue to see an unfolding scene. This is somewhat disconcerting because it’s not the scene the author wrote. It’s as though the characters continue doing their own thing while my eyes are closed with dialogue and action seem just as real as that in the book. When I open my eyes, I find that I’ve somehow wandered into an alternate future for the characters that began the minute I closed my eyes. This forces me to backtrack several pages to get back into the story the author intended.

I have no idea whether or not this happens to other readers. Perhaps it’s an anomaly. Perhaps it’s my level of concentration and/or my writer’s intuition about routes the story could take next at any given moment.  In general, I function better when I’m reading my favorite kinds of stories. They’re like powerful energy drinks. Reading helps my writing, too even though I never read anything similar to what I’m writing at the moment because I don’t want to be influenced by it, worse yet, borrow it without knowing I’m borrowing it.

I don’t think it helps to pick up a novel and think, “Okay, I’m about to go on a journey.” That would be like taking a placebo, knowing that it’s a placebo. The journeys we take by reading books seem more effective when we don’t concern ourselves with the journeys and just let whatever’s going to happen to happen. After we finish a book, we might feel empowered or inspired or more confident in ourselves or ready to tackle difficult tasks. Personally, I prefer not to analyze this: I’d rather just allow it without trying to pin science and technology logic to the process.

How about you? When you read the kinds of novels you like best, do you feel better off while reading them? Do you feel a lack in your life when you don’t have anything new to read? When you finish a book, does it feel like you’ve just returned home from a vacation trip?

I can easily answer “yes” to all those questions, but I wonder where other people experience books in similar ways.

Malcolm

All that inspiration for just a few dollars

When I walk out of a theater after watching a wonderful movie where good and love triumph, I feel inspired. Perhaps it’s simply the story, whether derring-do or comedy or noir. Or music. Or the cinematography. Often it’s the acting. When I was young, I’d walk down the street after seeing such a movie and think I can do those things. I’d imagine myself beating up the bad guys, taking a hill with a company of marines, finding the magic in the secret cave.

Now I walk out of such movies thinking that I can do my things, whatever my goals may be.

I feel that way when I finish well-written books. Somehow the book or the movie works as a spell and unlocks dreams and abilities and willpower I didn’t know I had. (Or that had gone dormant.) Sometimes they work more like a confidence potion or maybe an angel’s gift. At some level, I suppose, it’s all just a fantasy. There are times, though, when I see differences in my life. Usually, an infusion of energy or a renewed devotion to a long-time project.

I often wonder how many others feel this way after seeing a movie or reading a book. Reading gurus have many theories about the impact of a good story. I don’t have any theories that I know of because having them seems to jinx the whole business. If your theory is that watching a certain movie or reading a certain book is going to turn you into a god or an avatar, then forget it. But, if you don’t think that, you may well be transformed.

As I read this week about a religious pilgrimage that occurred many years ago in the kingdom of Sikkim (now part of India) I find myself thinking more positively about myself and the world than usual even though I have no desire to go there and follow the seeker’s paths. For one thing, I don’t have the patience to spend hours in meditation. I never have. I know I should do it, but I don’t. All that seems so cumbersome to me. But reading about the journey and the seeker’s devotion seems to change me for the better.

And, the book and the movie only cost a few dollars. What a bargain!

Subconsciously, maybe all of us know that in addition to the escapist fun of reading a great novel or seeing a wonderful movie, we will be changed for the better by the experience. I read for the fun of it, not as a spiritual practice. But when I put the book down, I realize I’m a different person than the one who picked up the book.

Perhaps this happens to you as well.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Widely Scattered Ghosts,” a new collection of short stories from Thomas-Jacob Publishing.