For readers of fiction, choosing what book to read next is, also choosing where to go. It is like setting out to explore distant lands, or deciding a holiday destination, but with many more options: you can choose a city in the 19th Century or a different planet in the distant future. You can go alone, but more often you will travel with others, the characters; you can choose whether to be a silent witness, observing and maybe judging or trying to predict what happens next, or to blend in, talk to the locals.
It happens with fictions, because that is what writers do: they create worlds, and decide what to say and what to leave to us to imagine. It may happen with drama but that is more like going to the cinema: the text is too short, so you can think about what you have seen later, and recall moments or scenes.
It can happen with poetry, in some cases, at least, although it is more plunging into a moment in time and space, like dipping your face in JK Rowling’s Pensieve. To me, it happens especially with nature poetry or meditative poetry : I am drawn into a snowy evening in the woods, by the side of a pony and of a muffled up (I imagine) Rober Frost, or on a Scottish hillside watching a woman working and singing to herself, in which case I have Wordsworth’s direct invitation.
Those are moments of contemplation, and finish with the poem-reading, but fiction, even short fiction, usually requires more than one sitting , so when you are reading a story you stay there: there is a corner in your mind that is the story’s setting, and while opening the book is really opening a door, you can visit when you are doing something else, too. I suppose how often, and in which fashion that happens depends on the kind of reader one is, and how involved one is.
Discussing the relationship between readers and the places they visit in literary texts, Gaston Bachelard says that if we read of a certain room in a book or a poem again and again, we day-dream about them, and we end up taking there the memories of other, real rooms from our lives, as if we were furnishing them with objects that we are familiar with and that make us even more at home in the imaginary, imagined spaces.
Actually, the mind of a reader is a place with many doors leading to specific places in fictional worlds. Most of the times these places contain details that the reader has added, which makes the connection with the novel or story more personal. I beleve this happens even when a film adaptation provides most of the visual material. A thought, an event causes one door to open, and you are in a room that you visited reading, or in a street where you saw something happen to a character. A crowded bridge in London, a street in Novara. A space ship. A garden which you reach from a tiny door.
(Drawing by G.V., age 9)
A thought, a sight, an event opens a door to somewhere else – a form of day- dreaming, with the sort of dangers day-dreaming poses (to students or drivers, for example), but much more structured, so that you can go back exactly to the same place and the same moment, and find the same figure. Everytime I am in my car and hear Cat Stevens’s “Into white”, I think of Severus Snape, Hogwart’s potion master. I cannot say why, but at some point I started imagining the song when thinking of the character, and now it works the other way round.
I will conclude by mentioning a very intriguing book by Peter Mendelsund, What we see when we read: the author combines text and illustrations to explore the interaction between writer and reader in the creation of a picture: the portrait of a character, the setting of a passage – a street in a neighbourhood, a room in a building. It’s beautifully devised, quick to read, and it helps us understand what we do when we are reading.
The realms of gold
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
John Keats, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer
A world of stories
I have lived in a world of stories since I was a child, and I am certainly not the only one: the two gentlemen who wrote the poems on this page are splendid travelling companions, to begin with.
One difference is that now I think about it: why don’t I just read or watch the stories that interest me? Why do I almost always end up travelling to the Land of Story-books, to see the sights and talk to the locals?
What I intend to do in this space is to think about the relationship between us and the world of stories -whether in books or films or tv series – but also reflect on themes and images that inhabit readers’ (viewers’) minds.
The Land of Story-books
At evening when the lamp is lit, Around the fire my parents sit; They sit at home and talk and sing, And do not play at anything. Now, with my little gun, I crawl All in the dark along the wall, And follow round the forest track Away behind the sofa back. There, in the night, where none can spy, All in my hunter’s camp I lie, And play at books that I have read Till it is time to go to bed. These are the hills, these are the woods, These are my starry solitudes; And there the river by whose brink The roaring lions come to drink. I see the others far away As if in firelit camp they lay, And I, like to an Indian scout, Around their party prowled about. So, when my nurse comes in for me, Home I return across the sea, And go to bed with backward looks At my dear land of Story-books.