Reading is more than uploading a clever storyline from a string of words. Reading is immersion into an imagined world – not just descriptions, context or character traits but nuance, points-of-view never before glimpsed, wholly different worlds adrift in time and space within a book. Scanning my stack of recently read books each world calls back to me:
–- the texture of dense fog, of London’s noise, filth, colorless dress, the quiet, desperate conformity of its citizens spiraling down and around Angel Pavement
— the pure, pine-scented wind circling Wallowa Lake, infecting the Nez Perce, inspiring them to resist removal to any lesser place, their spirit embodied in Joseph, The Chieftain
— the crystalline cold of a Northern Wisconsin winter, at once a beautiful and barren, a monochrome of whiteness surrounding a perfectly squared mansion towering over forest-lined fields, with its frigid interior décor waiting for the finesse of A Reliable Wife
– the smell of death on the hot Somali wind just before a qaat-chewing rag-clad crew slides a fresh corpse into a shallow grave without a witness to decipher the meaning of yet one more life quickly taken in the chaotic civil war of Links
– terror, impossible heat, quaking earth under uncertain feet, the pungent smell of burning jungle overtaking the sweet scent of plumeria and pikake remembered on the breeze as Pele, the Goddess of Volcanoes, reprimands Hawaiians and haoles alike, asserting the sacredness of the islands that belong to her and The Daughters of Fire
— the embodiment of pure grace and speed in a teen girl named Kenya as she races around an indoor track, escaping from the New England winter, escaping into a world made perfect by her long fluid strides and her inexhaustible lungs, a world free of family tragedy and an uncertain fate, a world she owns because she can Run
–- musket shots in the distance, cedar smoke wafting down from cottages and small mansions, the rustle of petticoats and taffeta, a hint of ripe apples mellowing in earthen cellars, the sweet, satisfying pungency of horse sweat and leather, overlaid with the nerve-tingling urgency of revolution in The Traitor’s Wife
– twenty-foot high arched, well-lit, stone-hued entryways leading into vaulted ceilings that dangle massive crystal chandeliers in a lobby large enough for a symphony orchestra to play to the thirty rooms that surround it, richly draped rooms smelling of candle wax and incense making you wonder at the piety of the Eastern European cardinal who holds dominion over the mansion and a million Catholics while dressed in The Color of Blood
– and, the gravity-riven bloat of a five-hundred-pound dying man, human yet monstrous, deeply flawed and remorseless yet seeking his son’s sympathy and love in Big Ray.
My own emotions rooted in tumultuous teen years or resurfacing from ill-begotten live affairs four decades ago play out on the pages of each of the book worlds I inhabit. Images remembered by my minds eye raised by a single string of well-arranged words merge into kaleidoscopes through which the world is seen anew. Reading is world hopping. The best of the worlds in books are those familiar enough to be recognized and foreign enough to stir re-examination of what is real and re-imagining of what seems known.
Immersed this morning in Plowing the Dark, which explores the mystical high-tech world of virtual reality, I read: “The realm of real fact did not result from cranking through static functions, no matter how many variables those functions included. The worlds’ events emerged as a resonance, the shifting stages of mutually reshaping interactions, each fed back into the other in eternal circulation.”
Just as self-learning computer programs use feedback to build their own new strings of algorithms, each book that came before the one in hand shapes the new world to be explored in the unread pages.
Coming from Link’s war-ravaged Mogadishu, my nose filled with gun smoke and dust, my heart aching for emaciated orphans and sad-eyed widows, the sweet island breezes, soothing waves and aloha-loving Hawaiians of The Daughters of Fire are all the more refreshing, making volcanic lava flow seem right, ceaseless, senseless civil war seem wrong. The bleak urban forces at the edges of the teenage runner’s world make we want to transplant her to the glorious freedom of the trails interlacing the forests of the Wallowa Valley. Likewise I want to remind the dour Brits populating Angel Pavement why Americans rebelled against kingly conformity (The Traitor’s Wife) so that we could build our own lives of quiet desperation and failed deceit.
I would match the worlds of my home library with any of the pixelated realities that tech labs will create in the future. I imagine myself serving a ten-year sentence, locked away alone in my library. How could I ever be lonely with Isabel Allende and Louise Erdrich to comfort me? How would I feel that I’m missing out on the American experience when I have Richard Ford, John Updike, Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane and Larry McMurtry to keep me company. My soul would not go unnourished with Haruki Murakami and Kenzaburo Oe as my sensei. I could reach into the future with Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Piers Anthony and Poul Anderson or abandon myself to the fantastical worlds of Ursula LeGuinn Philip K. Dick and C.S. Lewis. I would hang around with Kurt Vonnegut hoping to make him my best friend and seek out Christopher Moore and Tom Robbins when I needed belly-laughs and drinking buddies. Pauline Melville would take me to Guyana and Herman on the high seas. Naguib Mahfouz would entertain me in Egypt, and Gao Xingjian in China. I’d explore the hot mysteries of Scandinavia with David Guterson, Stieg Larsson and Derek B. Miller. I could spend hours rebalancing my tonal and nagual worlds with Carlos Castaneda.
World hopping. Where will books take me tomorrow? Whose mind will author my thoughts next week?