One evening, I had the chance to sit down with Steven Erikson and several other people over a glass of wine and dinner. It was a wonderful evening, full of laughs, camaraderie and discussion. Despite what you might think, me being a book blogger and Steve being a popular author, only a small portion of the evening was spent discussing fiction, books or writing. However, one short conversation, not with Mr. Erikson but with one of his friends, led me to think a lot about why I read, and when I read.
The conversation began with a question, “Do you read before bed?”
Some of us answered no, others, including myself, said, “Yes, I can’t fall asleep otherwise.” Those who answered “no,” had some interesting reasons, though they escape me now, but one of the other diners, a woman whose name I’m sorry to say I can’t remember, began talking about why she reads before bed. She made an observation that has stuck with me since. You see, she reads before bed because it allows her to put aside the events of her day, the events that might be coming the next day, and immerse herself in the emotions, problems and triumphs of the people living in the fiction she holds in her hands. Instead of falling asleep thinking about what needs doing tomorrow, or how her exam went poorly, she falls asleep wrapped in thoughts of these characters, wandering through these other landscapes.
In November 2011, Matt Killingsworth, a PhD student at Harvard, gave a TED Talk called “Want to be happier? Stay in the moment”. He discussed the idea that humans are generally happiest when they are engaging directly with whatever it is that they’re doing at the moment, and that it’s within those moments where the mind is left to wander that worry and other negative feelings begin to take root. As you can likely attest to, there are few times when the mind is more likely to wander than during those quiet moments before bed, while you’re brushing your teeth, showering, or just snuggling into your blankets. Most forms of entertainment, like videogames, television or music, are good at allowing your mind a distraction, a new point of focus, but reading engages in a way that those other mediums don’t, asking the mind work as it wraps itself around the narrative and world half-created for me by the author, filling in that other half with the reader’s own interpretations and spirits. Fantasy, of the Epic or Secondary World kind in particular, is good for this, and that is one of the reasons that it’s my genre of choice.
Terry Brooks, an author often attributed with revitalizing the Fantasy genre after it faltered somewhat in the post-Tolkien doldrums, spoke recently, also at a TED conference, this one a TEDx conference in Seattle, Washington in November, 2012, about the symbiotic relationship between author and reader:
If you think for just a minute about the way that books work, books are an equation. On the one side of the equation we have the writer. The writer, through use of imagination, and through the use of writer’s skills and, hopefully, some experience and practice, creates a story by putting words on a page, and it’s like a million pieces of a giant puzzle. If the words are fit together in the right way, it creates a picture, it creates images, it fills out the plots, it tells about the characters, it describes the setting, all of the elements that go into making up a book. And, at some point, the author’s done everything the author can do, and the book goes out to the reader. The reader, as the other half of the equation, brings to the experience, his or her own imagination, which interprets the words on the page and images in an entirely different way, because books are personal to every single person who reads them, and so, for each person it’s a different experience.
Brooks brings to light that bond between the reader and the author’s creation, and emphasizes the co-authorship between the two halves of the equation of the story being woven as the reader turns each page. It’s an amazing ability that books have, to take what is essentially a linear narrative and create something unique out of it for every time it is experienced by someone new. Few artistic mediums challenge the consumer to contribute nearly as much of themselves to the actualization of the work as the author herself.
While it’s unfair to rag on popular literature for often featuring easily recognized contemporary settings (give or take a few decades), there’s a draw to Fantasy that I’ve never been able to ignore, and I think this co-authorship sits at the centre of things. See, if you buy into the idea of Fantasy as escapist literature, especially the Fantasy filled with invented worlds, languages, races and magics, there are many reasons why it’s a perfect genre to fall into when you’re trying to get your mind off of the real world. Many of the issues, emotions and challenges faced by the protagonists in Fantasy novels are familiar — we all struggle with self-doubts, or physical challenges to reach our goals — but the frame is different from contemporary literature. One of the most critically lauded novels of this new century is The Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. It deals with a fellow named, appropriately, Oscar Wao, who often uses Fantasy for its escapist qualities as he carves his path through life. As an avid fan of the genre, I was hoping that Diaz’ book would win its way into my heart, but even as I flipped the final pages, I found that I had never warmed to it. It’s not that it wasn’t well written, or witty, nuanced or emotionally resonant, it is all those things, but Oscar Wao’s struggles, when he crawled out of his novels, were all to recognizable to me, the world around him was all too recognizable, because we live in a closely mirrored reality. I was never able to sink into the novel, because things would happen, conversations would be had, or locations would be visited that would remind me of the things going on in my own life, good and bad. My mind would wander. Instead of living in the world inside the book, I found my contemplating the videogame I was currently playing (another favourite past time of Wao’s), a kitchen that needed cleaning, or a lovely wife who deserved more of my attention. Oscar Wao never made promises of adventure as I drifted off into dreams.
A single dream is more powerful than a thousand realities.
Fantasy, more than almost any other genre, has an unerring ability to help readers understand that the world is never exactly what they think it is. Fantasy has constantly helped me rediscover the wonder in the world and caused a deep-seated desire to approach the world with open eyes, open arms and an open mind. If Fantasy literature is anything, it is diverse – opening the readers eyes to the possibility that anything is possible. If there is anything that I fear we are losing in today’s culture, it is a sense of discovery and wonder, a sense of imagination and a willingness to find those things that are good and magical in our world. Many books explore these problems, but Fantasy provides answers.
To quote the oft-quoted, “A single dream is more powerful than a thousand realities.” I think Tolkien was onto something here.
So, I ask myself, “why do I read before bed?” Because, really, what’s more enjoyable than closing your eyes and being whisked away to a dream world where magic exists, good always triumphs over evil, and the kitchen boy winds up with the princess (or prince) of his dreams? And, hey, that sure beats dreams of web design code, remembering my umbrella and the balance in my bank account . . .
This Article was originally published by Jo Fletcher Books