The physicality of reading

It’s been a bit quiet here on the blog for the past few days, primarily because I am working a lot on book two. Book one is out in the great wide world doing things, and so I have shifted my attentions to book two. Book two is a big, heart-mash of a book; it’s not an easy one to write. It is one which, I think, I have had to write (as I have with book one), but it is interesting to me how physical the writing of book two is proving for me.

And that is making me think of things about the physicality of reading, and of how we can feel a text and how we can experience it, in so many ways, how the words can fall off the page and be felt in our hearts and our heads.

Children’s literature is this great and wondrous thing in that it is a formative experience. A sweeping statement I know, and one I could quite happily unpick, but for the purpose of this post, it is important to realise that literature helps us become who we are – regardless of age. I have talked before about the sweeping appeal of children’s literature, the way that it has helped and does help people realise who they are through the experience of somebody else’s self, somebody else’s voice, can help you frame your experience against it and through that framing discover who you are. And I don’t think it’s necessary for me to elaborate upon the fact that you can read children’s literature, that you can enjoy and love children’s literature, regardless of age (and if you don’t think this, then I’d suggest you’re reading the wrong blog).

But what I have never talked about is the physicality of reading, the physicality of writing. The physicality, in a way, of engaging with a text and mapping yourself onto that text and therefore creating the story, the story that is uniquely yours and only yours and will only ever be yours at the same time upon reading that text. You’ll read other books, other stories, but you’ll never have the same experience. The same moment. You’ll hunger for it, you’ll long for it, but you’ll never have that specific, little twist of your heart and the spark of tears that you had when you read that book that time, long ago. I have it with Jacynth Hardy in the Chalet School. I have it with The Fault in Our Stars (and I have that reaction to that book for a very specific, unique reason).

So why do we have this? Why do we have this physical breathlessness, this connection, this palpable tangible sense of touching something greater than ourselves? And perhaps, more importantly, how do we have this, what makes us look for it – what makes us need it?

A lot of it, for me, comes down to the context of the book actually being a book. The form of it. A book has a specific shape. It is a controlled environment. We start reading at page one and we end at page whatever. We understand the rules of navigating that space. We understand the rules of controlling that space. We are powerful in that space. And when it gets too much, when it gets too dark, we can control that space by closing the book. Turning the page. Reading past it.

Such a simple thing the book, such a wondrous thing. The rules of the book, the rules of interacting with the book, are those that are so built into us, that we can almost long for them in real life. When the darkest of the darknesses come for us in real life (and the inevitability of that darkness coming is one of the worst things in this world), I find myself looking for the off button. The mute. The manual to help me understand what’s going on. And that is something reading gives me; it gives me the key to understand the code of this experience. It gives me the key to decode this experience.

But where and what of this physicality? There is the physicality of the page turn when we read, but there is more than that. There is always more than that. There is the weep, the sob, the laughter. The love. The hate. The loss.

The book offers a safe space for these emotions. It offers a mirror, in a way, to throw yourself against and to let the worst of your side out on. And it is a space that we can master. That we can control.

That is one of the great wonders of children’s books for me, of texts that say – this is the world and this is how much it can hurt – because they also say – and this is how you survive.

This is how you’ll live. This is how you’ll survive.

That you can survive.

Books that make you feel them during the reading, that make you experience them so physically, so painfully, are doing something quite wondrous behind the scenes.

They are showing you how this life of yours can be lived.

How it could be lived.

 

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