Reading as Virtual Reality

Reading is following a knotted rope into a dark cave. We go into it on faith and emerge carrying with us something we didn’t have before. The particle might be small, a mere speck, but it is there, this new thing and already it has combined with others to form constellations. It’s a remarkable thing that we do, when we read…every bit as remarkable as that which the writer has managed. In fact, without the reader, the writer manages little, mere squiggles.

We don’t always remember what we mean to accomplish when we set out to read and the magnitude of the feat once we have finished. Perhaps we did once when words were closer to markings than they were to ideas, when our mouths were wrapping themselves around sounds and our thought muscles strained.

So very little about reading is mechanical in the end. It’s transportative. It excites. It calms. It is a collaborative endeavour of reader and writer, a virtual reality of sorts. Time disappears, as does the chair, the room, the entire world and we are somewhere else. T.S. Eliot said:

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

Perhaps this is true. The world is harsh. It can lack a certain lyricism, a beginning, a middle and an end. Australian philosopher and reader, Damon Young says:

” We live in a state of middleness.”

It’s true. Everything is half-done, incomplete and by the time it is finished, it may be too late for us to know it.

Let our reading not be too easy though. We won’t be taken in by a story which doesn’t force us on.  We will call it ‘beneath us’ because we like what we like, whatever that may be. It is the story which taps into our own yearning, the one which says to us, ‘yes, I know’, while nodding sagely or enthusiastically, as is needed.

It’s been said we develop our theory of mind from our reading. We move in and out of other minds. We are exposed to innumerable reactions not our own. There are claims that readers of fine fiction develop empathy via this transportation into the minds of others, but I don’t know. It could be that the empathetic are more likely to read fine fiction, if one believes such things. The truth is though, dickheads read too, so its best not to make too much of this. And if its empathy we are after, how do we know the writers have imagined right minds?

Still, the comfort gained from reading is no small thing. That we seem not, for a time, one mind alone in a large world is existentially medicinal. This is reason enough to read, but there are others. Some say they read for knowledge. These autodidacts are endlessly curious. Others read to escape, not bearing well ‘very much reality’ as Eliot said. But some just read to read. I’m one of those. I’m a time traveller, a shape-shifter. I have super powers when I read. I can look outward with different eyes embodied and then swell beyond to look down upon a world like a deity. I am like the ether. I swirl and dance. The enormity of this expanding universe is not lost on me. I don’t fear it. I read because I can. Because I learnt how to so many years ago and now cannot stop.