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 happily passed by absorbed in a Dickens or Dostoyevsky. Nagging worries and even awareness of my physical surroundings were often eclipsed by a fully imagined Victorian London or Tsarist St Petersburg. An imaginal landscape explored through the lives of a Lizzie Hexam or Alyosha Karamazov, characters who opened up possibilities of feeling, thought and action far beyond my humdrum existence. And yet, this reading was by no means an escape from reality.
Reading fiction had a kind of shadow life not at all reliant upon scanning language on a page. Long after closing a book, imagined characters and events lingered in my awareness. Imagined lives whose sympathies and courage somehow worked their way into my own life, hatching creative ideas and actions. Far from running away from it, reading fiction was a way of refreshing and becoming more involved in everyday living.
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 and my thoughts wandering into daydreams and fragmented worries. Small noises and interruptions intruded ever more into my reading. I seldom got even close to the effortless immersive experience I had previously enjoyed. To be left with just the text, devoid of the rich imaginal background it once evoked, was a painful absence.
This loss of satisfying reading experiences 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— which like the words on the page, were becoming ever emptier and weightless, 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 to 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 gone. 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.
Wild Reading is the name I came up with. What follows is a brief introduction to Wild Reading and how it helps recover and develop the richly satisfying reading experience sketched out above. However, before going any further this might be a good point to confess my temerity in setting out a theory and practice of reading without any expert literary status on my part.
I am certainly not a professor of literature. Despite trying, I am not an accomplished writer of fiction. Neither do I review books or offer literary criticism. And while I do love reading fiction every day, I have never studied literature at university and cannot claim to having covered ‘the canon’. However, none of these qualifications are particularly relevant to what I’m about to share. Indeed, they might have held me back.
I offer here an outsider’s perspective, which to be fair does draw upon elements of literary studies, but in the main has emerged from my background as a psychotherapist and author specialising in image-based healing, transformation and creativity.
Wild Reading explores how fiction escapes a text and runs wild in the hands of a reader as an act of imagination. Instead of a tame reading of fiction as an object of study, figuring out how stories are constructed by authors, a Wild Reading emphasises the quality of imaginal perception needed to bring those stories to life. An imaginal perception found not on the page but in the living relationship arising between reader and text. As we shall soon see, in adopting a position directly inside the process of reading, Wild Reading offers a language to name and notice, validate and enhance the often unseen and overlooked aspects that make for a satisfying reading experience.