How does reading fiction work? By what mysterious process does a book come to life in the hands of a reader? And why is this process often therapeutic? Why is life somehow just better when reading a novel or short story and what can be done to enhance this cross-over into everyday living? I imagine most readers have asked these questions, especially when the magic of reading slips away.
I started wondering about these questions in my late twenties. Until that time, reading had been a simple joy. Whole afternoons passed by absorbed in a Dickens or Dostoyevsky. My nagging everyday worries and even awareness of my physical surroundings would become eclipsed by a vividly imagined Victorian London or Tsarist St Petersburg. Periods of immersion during which the lives of a Lizzie Hexam or Alyosha Karamazov became one with my own life. An identification which opened up possibilities of feeling, thought and action far beyond my humdrum existence.
I took reading fiction like this for granted until it vanished. Not overnight, but slowly over the years, reading novels became more of a chore than a joy. A conscious discipline of attention was now needed to stop my eyes slipping over the text. Small noises and interruptions intruded ever more into my reading, sending my thoughts wandering into daydreams and fragmented worries far from the page. I seldom got even close to my previous effortless immersion. To be left with just the text, devoid of the rich imaginal background it once evoked, was a painful absence.
And this loss of satisfying reading experience also spilled over into the ‘text’ of everyday life — a walk in the park, a conversation with a neighbour, a cat sitting high up in a tree — were becoming ever emptier and weightless, just like the words on the page, ever less able to impinge upon and meaningfully touch me. The imaginative richness of my life — that elusive sense of story and play and possibility — was waning in parallel with my reading experience.
Clearly, something had gone wrong. But what?
The problem was that no one had ever taught me to read fiction. Of course, as a child several wonderful people had taught me to read. But my concern was more than a simple failure of comprehension — ‘apple’ and ‘sunset’ still meant ‘apple’ and ‘sunset’. Something other than the ability to decipher a symbolic code was missing. The problem was not in the actual words on the page. The once cherished texts that now left me cold had not changed. The words remained but their power to enchant had vanished. Some complex amalgam of perception and meaning making had gone awry. Previously taken for granted, having simply emerged from learning to read, but not explicitly taught, there was not even a name for what had been lost.
Direct attempts to find a name for this loss drew a blank. Literary studies gave me a whole set of ideas about fiction, but seldom considered how to enhance reading experience. Creative writing classes were a lot of fun and seemed to reveal the mysteries of reading by teaching how novels are put together. And yet, while related, writing and reading are not the same. In the end, as perhaps with all creative journeys, answers came from an unexpected direction – through my work as a psychotherapist.
In the process of writing my book, ‘Waking Dreams: Imagination in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life’, a little bell began ringing at the edges of my awareness. What if reading is an act of imagination? What if the loss of reading ability is somehow related to an impoverishment of imagination? And might a richly satisfying reading experience be recovered by the enhancement, not of literary theories or writing craft, but of imaginative life itself?
Perhaps like all good ideas, it seemed rather obvious and simple at first. After all, no-one is really doubting fiction requires an act of imagination. However, my book was a fine-grained look at the what, how and why of imaginative life. Instead of taking imagination for granted, it enquired into the questions of: What exactly is imagination? How can we live more imaginative lives? And what are the benefits of doing so? And it seemed to me these questions were entirely relevant to reading fiction. Indeed, that reading fiction was simply a particular application of the image-based methods from ‘active imagination’, ‘art therapy’ and ‘ecotherapy’ discussed in my book.
Since my book was published in 2021, I’ve been working on relating its thesis to the reading of fiction. The starting point is a simple one: the story world of a novel does not really exist in the text itself. A book on a shelf is just an object, like a lamp or table. Only once a book is picked up off the shelf and a responsive reader scans its pages can fiction run free in imagination. Hence the coinage of ‘Wild Reading’.
To be wild is to be free-willed and reading wildly is all about allowing readers to imaginatively break free. It provides a method to understand and practically enhance imaginative engagement with fiction on two related levels. Most directly, by allowing readers to pass through a text and enter ever more fully into the expanded possibilities of story worlds and characters. And secondly, by considering how this on-the-page reading spills over into life beyond-the-page. How long after closing a book, imagined characters and events can linger in awareness. Imagined lives whose sympathies and courage can work their way into the feeling and thinking of readers. A heightened quality of imaginal perception which allows for a revitalised reading of the ‘text’ of everyday life – helping readers to imagine new possibilities and break free from habitual identifications. A cross-over of reading into life as an act of imagination which is providing the basis for new developments in what is called ‘fiction therapy’ or ‘bibliotherapy’.