Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Reading makes you a virtual traveller

I was reading a long essay by Anna Quindlen entitled, How Reading Changed my Life. She mentioned early on that when she was a child with no means of getting anywhere new or different, curling up in a chair with a good book made her feel like a world class traveller. Years later, when she became a successful writer, with many opportunities to travel widely, she figured out something surprising. It turns out she enjoyed the actual experience less than the virtual travel she took from her armchair when she was young.

My favourite quote from that essay is, "I went to Tara and Manderley and Thornfield Hall, all those great houses with their high ceilings and high drama, as I read Gone with the Wind, Rebecca and Jane Eyre."

I knew exactly what she meant. When I visited England in my teens, the sight of London's buildings from the air as we approached Heathrow deeply touched my heart. It felt like a homecoming, even though I'd never been there before. At the time, I wondered if the British blood of my ancestors was being stirred by the sight. In retrospect, I think it was more likely to be because I was familiar with the sights through reading books. They looked like the streets where Wendy and her brothers lived in Peter Pan, or Michael and Jane in Mary Poppins. And I was to find that boarding the underground tube trains was like entering a Monopoly game or classic novel.

That sense of recognition has happened at other times too, with places there is no way I could possibly have any blood ties with, such as America, Asia and Africa. They seem to got wedged into my psyche with just words upon a page. It's happened with the stories I've read within the last few months. There was a fantasy trilogy which struck chords with me, reminding me of places of earth such as Spain or the Middle East, which I've never visited. Next was a story about a brother and sister who travelled from New Jersey, on the east coast of the United States, to Portland on the west. Although I've never been there, I still recognised the changing features of different states they passed through, purely from reading, hearsay and television.

With all this in mind, I was interested to come across an article entitled, 'Your Brain on Books.' It tells us that reading about an experience is almost the same as living it. Our brains actually believe they have experienced the things we read about. They make no distinction between reading about an experience and actually living it. In fact, whether you are reading about a place or standing there in the flesh, the same neurological regions of the brain light up when examined. That seems like substantial proof that the worlds of novels can enter our thoughts and feelings to that extent.

Okay, I've got to admit that given the choice, I'd rather visit fantastic, exotic, far-away places than just read about them. I'd pack up a suitcase and go in flash if I could. However, I'm glad it's been shown that reading is a far, far better substitute than I'd imagined. They tell us to write about what we know. It turns out that each of us, especially if we're readers, may know a far lot more than what we ever thought.

The quote that says, "I read not because I don't have a life but because I choose to have many" may be truer than we think. And Emily Dickinson, who lived as a recluse in her own house, wrote, "There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away, nor any coursers like a page of prancing poetry."

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