Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Exploding reality

I read a blog post this morning that completely exploded my construct of reality. And when I say completely, I do mean completely. And by exploded, I mean blown to kingdom come.

Referencing the new book Reality Hunger, as well as some related web conversations, Kester Brewin asks: "Is it a reality we are immersing ourselves in when we read, or a virtual space?"

If you know me at all, you know that I'm not just a reader. I'm an avid reader. A passionate reader. A voracious reader. Not an hours and hours a day reader, but life-shaped-by-the-books-I'm-reading sort of reader. I love books. I own too many of them, and usually read too many at once. To me, there are few questions in the world as interesting as "What are you reading?"

I've certainly been accused of escapism, and there's no doubt I can get overly engrossed in my reading. Sometimes books do pull me away from other priorities, and I admit, my timing still needs some work. But mostly, reading for me is simply another one of the worlds in which I engage. There's the world where I happen to be right now (that would be Grand Rapids), there's my formative childhood world (Northwestern Argentina), the world of family (spread across the U.S.), the world of challenging ideas (mostly cyberspace), and the world/s of the book/s I'm reading right now.

As a child, I moved frequently, and of necessity learned to adapt to new environments, while simultaneously keeping alive the reality of past settings. I've never had all my friends in one place. I've never, in my memory, communicated in only one language. My favorite foods, favorite restaurants, favorite people have always spanned at least two continents. So to me it just makes sense that books would become one more environment in which I could engage. It could be argued that books aren't a real environment--let's face it, it's not like I could exactly see or taste or smell what I was reading about. Not exactly, because my eyes and tongue and nose were still in a geographically tangible world. But the sensory organs that take over after the initial input--the brain connections that told me I really was seeing and tasting and smelling these things--were no less convincing. Just ask anyone in my 8th grade class who watched me read the end of "Gone with the Wind." I was right there with Scarlett O'Hara, no question about it.

Now, don't get me wrong--I never expected to find Frodo hanging out in my front yard. I was simply happy to hang out in his. I have certainly known the boundaries between worlds, which is perhaps why finishing a really good book has often been as painful for me as a teary airport farewell. But as I thought about this today, I realized that the boundaries, apparently, have not for me been clear indications of the beginning and end of "reality." They have simply been markers between two different realities.

This is just as true of non-fiction as it is of fiction. The lessons I learn, the ways I change, the things I appreciate and fear, all flow through and around my tangible world as well as the books that I read. I cannot count the times I've marveled at the ways in which books "choose me". They consistently engage me on a level that parallels other aspects of my life, very much like a friend over a cuppa who listens, draws me out, helps me think things through.

So back to the mental explosion. If books are this real to me, do I have a problem? Those boundaries I noted earlier--the ones between book world and this world--are they enough to keep me "properly" grounded? Or are gauzy purple dresses, crystals, and flighty remarks about quantum dimensions awaiting me just around the corner?

I'll let you just imagine what happens when I start thinking about reality and cyberspace.


  1. I don't think you have a problem! But I may be speaking as one who shares the same set of symptoms. I had a challenging family life as a child and books were my means of both escape and sanity. Still, I think I discovered more real and enduring values through books than anywhere else. A value may be fairly intangible, but it is still very real to me. Truth, goodness, honor, etc... I think I found those first in books.

    But it is true, sometimes I think that my favorite books are "more real" than real life... which is definitely neither factual nor really accurate.

    Thanks for writing!

  2. Thanks for the encouragement, Nurya. This is all easier to think about after a week fully immersed in my "real life." Of course, I woke up this morning charting out my reading for Holy Week. So I know it's time to get back to the books. Can't wait! :)
    I can't imagine how you get reading time squeezed into your [very full] life--you must miss it dreadfully!