But is it real? And does that matter?

I had an interesting conversation with the librarian at Westtown School this week. She is reading Watersmeet and she confessed that she was afraid to read it because she likes to feel like all the books she reads are real. All of them. Even the ones, like Watersmeet,that have centaurs, dwarves, fauns and fairies as characters.  She went on to say that she doesn’t even like to see author photos, much less, as is the case with me, to know the people who write the books she reads. Now you may be wondering what kind of librarian Westtown has hired, but as Victoria continued to talk, I got a sense for what she means–and I realized she had a point. An author photo links the story to a real person in this world.It takes her, I imagine, out of the fictional world she wants to live in, at least while she’s reading the book. If she knows that I have two kids, which I do, that I am usually a few minutes late for everything, which I am, and that I drive a Prius with a dent on the passenger side from driving over a particularly frozen bit of snow and ice, which it was–all of this distracts her from Abisina and Rueshlan and the world of Watersmeet. It’s too mundane. Too much of her own experience.

I found something similar in my current favorite read, Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book. Miller might say that my librarian friend is reading like a child: “If we love a story enough, as I loved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Miller says in her book, “we might decide that it hasto be real, that a place like Narnia is so necessary that it must be out there somewhere, as palpable as California or Boston” (115). When we don’t read this way, we lose some of the joy of reading; Miller likens it to opening presents under the Christmas tree when you think they are from Santa vs. opening those same presents when you know they’re from your parents. Same presents, different feeling. Miller points out that you gain by no longer believing in Santa, by recognizing that Narnia is a “created” place rather than a place like Boston, but I’m thinking today about what you lose, about what my friend at Westtown may be trying to hang on to.

When I read as a child and young adult, I could get completely swept away by novels. I remember coming downstairs  sobbing after I finished reading May I Cross Your Golden River–I don’t even know if it is still in print. My mother was used to this: “Were you reading a good book?” “Yes,” I choked out. That book was real, though I was certainly old enough to know it was fiction. How often do adults still read like that? They may have a sharper critical eye, they may appreciate the symbols and imagery, but do they sob at the end? Is this why I still read YA novels almost exclusively–because I would rather read like a child before I got trained in the way of literary criticism?

I know a lot of people who don’t like books unless they’re true. My mother is one. She reads non-fiction: biography, memoir, historical accounts. She can’t be bothered with a novel. And don’t even ask her to read fantasy! (She did read Watersmeet because she is a good mother!) I’ve had students ,too, who ask me why they need to know “all this stuff” about Odysseus or Antigone when none of it was true? But these stories are true, even if they are not factual. In some ways they are more true than going to the grocery store or making your bed in the morning.

I do look at authors’ pictures and I study a book’s acknowledgments. But I think I started doing this when I became a writer. At that point, I became interested in another story–the story of the creation of the book I was about to read, to see if in these facts I could also find a truth that might apply to me.

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~ by ellenjensenabbott on February 14, 2009.

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