A month or so ago, in a pub in town, the chat was about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. We were talking about books that transport you. Reading them seems like your real life, and everyday things just a rude irruption into it. It suddenly occurred to me that Lyra’s reading of her alethiometer is like many people’s relationship with fiction. Early in the story, Lyra intuitively interprets the tarot-like symbols of the truth-telling device, but as she matures she loses the gift and must re-learn it the hard way as an adult.
As a child, you can completely disappear into the world of the story and experience an emotional and imaginative totality. Many readers continue with that intense immersion through their teens, often through genre fiction (though all fiction is genre, if you ask me). But the high gets harder and harder to find and is nearly always attenuated in some way, not least by the cares of an adult life.
I got to thinking about how books can re-create that lost paradise for me. There are a couple of ways it can still happen; identifying strongly with the main character, being brought into another world, imaginative or historical, that is just strange and convincing enough to make me wistful for it (the Avatar phenomenon), or simply immersion in a ripping good yarn. Some books that have recently made me feel like that rarest thing, a happy teenager, are Tim Winton’s Cloud Street, Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book and Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside (which we did a seminar on last year).
I’m curious about what others think. Can you ever go back? What sort of books do it, and how?