It was Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf that got me thinking about the peculiar mechanics of reading, how artificial it is to translate little black squiggles into sentences and stories. If you’re having trouble picturing how much acquired skill it takes to read, see what your brain can do with Farsi
I bring this up as I embark on (reading, not writing) a new novel. Not your modern whoosh whoosh sort of book, where by the end of the first paragraph you’ve had two sex scenes, a decapitation and a werewolf. This novel (written in 1934) is very long, has very tiny type, and starts very slowly.
The book begins as an inanimate object. A brick of paper full of black squiggles. If it has a beautiful cover, you may feel anticipation and excitement. But basically, it’s a foreign thing. A blank in your head.
As you begin to read, a hint of colour seeps in. A character emerges. You hear his voice. See where she’s standing. What he’s wearing. They move, become (to your brain) real people.
Slowly (in the case of John Cowper Powys) or instantly (ala Robert Harris) your book undergoes a strange transformation as it ceases to be a mere object.
The next time you pick it up, it’s full of moving pictures, scenes, stories, people whose faces reside clearly in your head, locations you would recognize in real life. When you open your book now, it’s a place, not a thing — even when you’re not reading your book, sheep graze in it, politicians argue, lovers kiss.
When I try to think of why people should read books (should they?) it’s this I come back to. This transformative thing that happens in your brain when you read a book. It’s magic.
It is, of course, harder work than turning on the television and absorbing someone else’s pictures. But it makes your brain feel good in a strange and abstract way that, if I were a neuroscientist, I might begin to understand.
In the meantime, I’ll stick with the magic.