Every so often we may come across a book that captivates us, completely and utterly. It’s suddenly dark outside and you realize you’ve spent all day on your couch, or in bed, and you’re almost through with that last chapter. It happens to the best of us.
One can get so lost in fiction and fantasy that they may forget the world outside even exists. It provides an escape, an excuse to step out of our lives for a moment – or for a whole day – and live in another’s created world.
In her article for The New York Times, Motoko Rich claims that, “The gestation of a true, committed reader is in some ways a magical process, shaped in part by external forces but also by a spark within the imagination [...] reading is ultimately a private act.”
The private act of “reading” is one that many people experience. But why are so many of us drawn to these tales? What makes them so lovable?
Advocates of “bibliotherapy” would argue that people love books they can identify with; books that contain characters or situations that appeal to us because they are very similar to our own. Education.com defines bibliotherapy and lists its benefits, claiming, “Bibliotherapy is a big word to describe the process of using books to help children work through real-life problems The benefits of bibliotherapy are threefold: Identification, Catharsis and Insight.”
This seems to be the general consensus among the authors too. To quote novelist Anne Lamott, “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored.”
Renowned author C.S. Lewis puts it more simply, “We read to know we are not alone.”
And I’m sure this is true, to an extent. When we get lost in books, we step out of our own reality and into the world that the author has created for us. It is a controlled universe, dictated to us and formed outside of ourselves. It is discovered, not created from our own minds, and therefore indisputable. If one were to philosophically read a book, questioning every reality presented and failing to accept anything as fact, there would be no point to reading it at all.
However, that is not why obsessive readers allow themselves to get lost in their novels. The bibliophile automatically accepts the truths of the novel and begins to make their assumptions and inferences based on the information they have been given.
The reader must make assumptions about the characters’ personalities in novels based on their actions and thoughts if they’re provided. But isn’t that how we get to know people in the real world as well? Because we are not able to read minds, we can only judge others based on their actions and words, just as we would fictional characters.
It then makes sense that a book containing a character whom we perceive to be similar to ourselves would hook us. It is just the same as discovering a kindred spirit, someone that you truly would get along with and understand.
This ability to “read people” is called, according to Zunshine, “Theory of Mind.” (not to be mistaken for the developmental psychology term Theory Of Mind). Her book goes on to argue the point that, “we thus read fiction because it engages, in a variety of particularly focused ways, our Theory of Mind.” She believes that bookworms exist solely because they enjoy the process by which we learn about the characters in stories, because they like to get to know their fictional counterparts.
In the end it all comes down the characters of our stories. Surely other factors, such as plot and setting, contribute to our general interest, but ultimately it is the people we become attached to.