The Joy of Entering Literary Worlds

One of the joys of reading is to escape. Not just escape, but to have the chance to explore new worlds. I don’t often consider this aspect of reading. More often I point to my love for language or my interest in human psychology and behaviour. I also love story, which means I love the thrills of the plot racing forward, and the cliff-hangers that make us say “Just one more chapter!”

I always associated escape and the building of ‘literary worlds’ with science fiction and fantasy. In the corner of Oxford where I live there are no shortage of famous homes and landmarks with links to such authors. I regularly walk past J.R.R. Tolkein’s old house on my way to work. I used to walk past the grave of C.S. Lewis every time I took my daughter to pre-school, cutting through the grave yard of Quarry Church. When I go for a walk I often find myself walking past the entrance to the house of the late sci-fi author Brian Aldiss.

(I will add here a detail which will be shocking to Terry Pratchett fans. As a teenager I joined a huge queue at WH Smiths in Nottingham to get a book signed by Terry Pratchett. I was fascinated by all things bookish, and knew I wanted to write. To meet an actual writer was thrilling. I loved the illustrations on the covers of Pratchett’s books. However, I just couldn’t get into the books. They weren’t my thing. To this day I have a signed copy of Good Omens, which is inscribed with the words: “To Russell, We made the Devil do it! Terry Pratchett”. I’ve had it for over twenty years and have never read it.)

Fantasy and sci-fi were never my kinds of genres. Yes, I dip into Tolkein and dabble with John Wyndham, but I’m never at home with the genre. For me it is always crime fiction, thrillers, and sweeping Victorian novels. These are the books I immerse myself in. They are just as escapist and immersive as any other created world. When I read Georges Simenon, I am in Paris, joining Maigret for his lunchtime sandwich and beer. When I read Agatha Christie, I’m in the world of picturesque villages with dark secrets, or I’m entering Poirot’s world of glamourous holidays and seemingly endless leisure time (not to mention income).

The word ‘escape’ can have unhealthy connotations. To escape reality can be harmful, hence ‘fantasy’ being on Anna Freud’s list of psychological defence mechanisms. However, there is a difference between the reader knowingly entering a fantasy world and the person who is detached from reality in response to the threat of psychic pain. We must remember Coleridge’s phrase on reading: the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. The reader knows the difference between fantasy and reality, and fully understands the tacit agreement with the author: “You tell me something as if it’s true, and I’ll believe it as if it’s true, even though we both know it is untrue.” I will add to this that poetic truth exists outside of literal truth anyway.

Which other worlds do I love to be immersed in? I read crime fiction set in various parts of Europe: Martin Walker’s books set in the Dordogne, Donna Leon’s Venice books, the Sicilian Montalbano books, Ragnar J√≥nasson’s Iceland books, Tom Benjamin’s Bologna books, Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh books, and the list could go on. These books give us a literary version of a real place, which is, I suppose, quite different from being in the place itself. We may get a strong cultural and geographic flavour of the setting, but where the line between fantasy and reality is, I don’t know. My own books, set in Portugal, offer an authentic sense of the city of Coimbra, but it will always be through my eyes and with my observations. I will people the city with characters I want to include, and will leave out the parts I have no interest in.

Since childhood I have been interested in Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series, which are historical adventure stories, but which take place in an alternative 19th century history that never existed. Oh, and England is overrun by wolves. This is a world to escape into. I’ve recently been reading Louise Hare’s Miss Aldridge Regrets and Tom Hindle’s A Fatal Crossing, both of which are historical crime novels set on luxury ocean liners. Both books offer a whole world to enter into – glamour, luxury, and a sense of being away from the humdrum details of everyday life (such as having to call someone to fix your boiler).

While I was at university I read Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. This brick of a book, brimming with characters, and encompassing the filthy backstreets of London as well as the smart dining halls, also offered me a world to explore. Yes, it was London; yes, it was nineteenth century; but it was also the world of Dickens. I came to believe in those characters. I sometimes go back into that world when I’m in the mood. My bookshelf is packed with so many possibilities for exploration and escape that I see no reason why my passion for books, stories, words and worlds will ever be satisfied.

A New Year for Reading

Mid-January is traditionally the time when we break all the resolutions we made at the start of the month. The new exercise regime is a pain, drinking less coffee was ditched when you discovered it was one of the few things pushing you through a busy morning, and going dry means you’ve denied yourself one of life’s small pleasures: a glass of Rioja on a dark, winter’s evening.

And how many people have decided they will read more books this year? Probably quite a few. Read more books, watch less Netflix. I’ve heard that a couple of times in the past few weeks.

The deluge of hardbacks published in time for Christmas now have 50% off stickers on them, and as we see these books lined up on the Sale shelf of the bookshop, or paraded beneath a flashing red banner on Amazon, we begin to wonder whether anyone wants to read a celebrity autobiography, or another television tie-in, or whether we all just assume other people might want to read them as we buy them as Christmas presents.

Now that the flurry of marketing is over, and the brightly-coloured headline books are taken out of the shop windows, we can look across the literary landscape and see its richness. I can see the obscure farming memoir from the 1940s that I’ve always wanted to read (The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis), the almost-forgotten coming-of-age novel by the author of Black Narcissus, which is set during a summer in France, and has a title that appealed to me the moment I saw it (The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden). I can see, lined up like a range of mountains, the complete Barsetshire chronicles, which I’ve always meant to read. Down on the shoreline, I can see all the Booker prize winners I’ve never got round to. Some of them are being swept away by a tide, never to be remembered again, some of them will remain and still be read. I will read that fascinating book on child psychology coming out in Penguin classics (Dibs in Search of Self by Virginia M Axline), I will buy Georges Simenon’s The Venice Train when it comes out in its new edition.

I want quality and quantity. I want to catch up on all the wonderful books that are waiting to be discovered. I want to get through them like you would all the items on the menu at your favourite restaurant. I want to uncork them like wine bottles, eager to find out whether the taste matches the description.

I will be surprised, I will be enthused, I will be disappointed. I will pick up some amazing books for almost nothing in charity shops; I will pay full price for books which turn out to be duds. By the end of the year I will know the names of writers I’ve not heard of yet, writers I’ll wonder how I ever lived without. I will read books on sandy beaches in Portugal, I will read them in the early hours of the morning when I cannot sleep, I will listen to them through my earphones while I weed the rhubarb patch at the allotment, I will read them with large cups of tea and small glasses of brandy. I will read them when I’m bored, I will read them when I’m interested.

Whatever else you give up on this month, don’t let it be books.