On the Interweaving of Book-Reality and Life-Reality

When you read a particularly engrossing book, do the lines between its plot and your reality ever blur?

If you asked me about most of the books I read, I’d be hard-pressed to remember where I was when I read them, whether I was basking in the sun or curled up in a chair, or how I felt during the days or weeks of the book-encounter. However, through some whim of memory, a few books have nestled their way into my experience and recollections in a more concrete, mingled way.

On one road trip through the southern Californian deserts, I listened to the entirety of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man on audiobook. Over days, as we drove and listened, the story slowly became intertwined with the surroundings—with all the tans and duns, with the spindly Joshua trees and wrinkled hills. In particular, the narrative of the sharecropper Jim Trueblood became tangled up with the desert: although I knew full well that his part of the story is set in the American South, to this day, a part of my mind always expects to see his log cabin far off on the low desert horizon, shimmering under the heat.

I can think of dozens of other examples, too: I remember that when I was reading Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna, I wandered about in a haze, dreaming of and fussing about the characters’ fates; that I read Sarah Waters’s chilly Victorian Affinity while wedged in a plastic chair on a Chilean sun porch; that the quiet, frozen, ominous isolation of Hedeby Island in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo loomed over my bed every night as I fell asleep; and that the pages of my Alfred Hitchcock murder anthology have a musty smell that still evokes the homey motel where I first read it.

I’ve tried to figure out why it is that some books take up residence in my place-memories and some do not. My best approximation is that it happens more often if I’m traveling in a new place with a new book. However, since books may just as often seep into my everyday, routine locations, this guess is incomplete. Perhaps I ought to ascribe it to book-magic and leave it at that.

I’m curious: have you experienced this too? Do scenes and characters from the books you read colonize the corners of your geographical memory, and why do you think that is?

9 thoughts on “On the Interweaving of Book-Reality and Life-Reality

  1. Interesting topic. Yes, I have had that experience, yet, strangely, I can’t remember specifics. Stay tuned.

  2. No, I can’t say that I inter-mix places with my reading except for one instance –= when I was about 12, i spent the summer on a New Hampshire lake, absorbing Freckles” and Girl of the Limberlost” (both of which you w ill not have heard of) whilst reading, stomach down, on a gently bobbing dock, on oil drums. That gentle motion and the lapping of the lake water at the dock and the smell of water and pines will always be intertwined in my memory. I guess I was more impressionable then –or haven’t read such —to me –absorbing books. WUV, G.

    1. Girl of the Limberlost! I do know that one. Since I was particularly into entomology at the time I read it, I remember being particularly entranced by all the descriptions of moths and moth-hunting.

      What a lovely and apt setting to have read those books in!

  3. They absolutely do!

    The scent of pine needles and lonely rocks are forever intertwined with Animorphs. On family trips to the mountains, I had a habit of sneaking away, book-in-hand, to perch on the most precarious promontory procurable.

    The wail of train horns conjures memories of American Gods intermixed with the sense of longing and transition I felt while traveling between Fresno and Davis to visit Julie and prepare for my transfer to a 4 year University. Many of the towns and sites along the train’s path also became the mental images from which I constructed memories of the book’s scenes.

    There are many other experiences directly linked to books, some of which I can recall off the top of my head and some of which I know I’ll discover only after stumbling across their hidden subconscious trigger. I’m not entirely sure why certain book/experience associations become seared so strongly together in my memory, like a delicious, overstuffed grilled cheese sandwich (ok, it’s definitely lunch time…), but but I feel it occurs more often for me in environments rich with sensations (not necessarily intense sensations — just distinct ones) and when I have time to reflect internally after reading, which often requires being alone.

    1. That’s really interesting, Dave—thank you for sharing! I definitely have a similar association with American Gods, of displacement and lengthy, landscape-bound travel, although it’s not linked to a specific time of my life as it is with yours.

      Building on your internal-reflection note, I might hazard that the more thought-provoking a book is, the more it creeps into the corners of your thoughts even when you don’t have it in hand, then perhaps the more opportunities it has to mosey into your geographical memory.

      (Mmmm, grilled cheese sandwiches.)

  4. I found myself nodding many times as I read David’s account. For me too travel is a common theme… though not universal, as you’ll see.

    This might get long.

    Earlist of all, I remember Frog and Toad Are Friends (and other Arnold Lobel books), as well as the indispensible Winnie-the-Pooh. My mom read me those. Pooh became our ritual for days when I was sick. I think she read The Wind in the Willows, too, but I found it perplexing. I loved stories, but I was lazy. It took a push for me to want to read to myself… about which more in a moment.

    My mom read me lots of YA fantasy when I was a kid. I remember sitting in our softly lit living room, on the shabby yellow couch, begging for one more chapter before bed. The Chronicles of Prydain stand out especially. It took a long time for me to realize I would not be an epic hero when I grew up, and to accept this… even after “epic hero” morphed to mean “famous research professor.”

    By the way, I re-read the Prydain books as an adult, and they were every bit as good as I remembered — except that the sexist side-role’ing of Elonwy vexed me as much as it did her. As a little boy, I didn’t notice or mind.

    I also remember Mom reading me the story of Heidi (and that of Pippi Longstocking?) in the drafty, central-heat-less house we rented in Leeds during my dad’s first sabbatical. She was preparing me for our trip to the Swiss Alps, which was incredible. I saw a funicular maintenance shack and ran up to it, yelling “It’s grandpa’s shack!” then rolled joyously down the hill. Uh, unfortunately the hill was covered in stinging nettles (I think I got stinging nettles in three different countries on that trip).

    When my dad came home late at night, he would try to read to me after dinner, but he would always fall asleep mid-sentence. Then his Oz tales would turn to gibberish and dream-stuff, comprehensible only to him (if that). After a few such performances, I gave up on him and demanded Mom. :)

    On the plane back home, Mom read me Pooh story about Christopher Robinson getting sent to boarding school, and cried. I asked her to read it again and again. She thought I was being mean, but I was trying to understand the meaning of the mysterious uncountable trees and the poignance of leaving home.

    When I was six or seven, I read A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends in the treehouse my dad built me. I loved that tree so much. That was where I discovered my love of reading on my own. I owe it to a patient school librarian who made several attempts to find something I would find appealing. My first hook? Encyclopedia Jones! I’m pretty sure I read several Roald Dahl books up there, too. I’m sure there was more. Why do I remember those in particular? Who knows?

    The summer that I was 11 or 12, my dad chaired a conference, and we moved houses. We took advantage of the lacuna to pack up all our stuff, get in the station wagon, and road-trip from Indiana to Portland, with many a detour along the way. I read Atlas shrugged in the car, passing the pages to my ever-patient mom as they came out of the shoddily printed book (how Rand would have fumed at the irony!) At the time I found it devilishly challenging to my beliefs; now I think it’s just poorly written claptrap. It was an impressionable and plastic age.

    I think that was the same road trip where I read Dahl’s The Witches to my little sister, accents and all. That was when I discovered the joy of reading aloud.

    Also on that trip, I read The Lord of the Rings. I vividly remembering lingering in our Portland hotel suite instead of going outside to explore, lying in the bright sunlight from the skylight, as I read the Stygian last chapter where Frodo and Gollum wrestle on Mount Doom. It was a bit of a let-down. After such a long journey, I was sad that there wasn’t any more LoTR to read. I don’t at all remember when or how I read “The Scouring of the Shire.”

    After being assigned the first one for class, I read most of the Dune series lying around in my aunt and uncle’s cabin on Sundays. There was more SF that my uncle lent me — so much more! — kindling my interest in that genre, which remains my favorite.

    I read Steinbeck’s East of Eden during my miserable year of eighth grade, when I was seeking escape wherever I could find it. Its version of Salinas sounded like a mystical, empty land I could crawl into late at night to get away from my confining life. I gladly traded my alertness during the day for trips to that land. I read The Winter of Our Discontent (how appropriate!) that same year. Around that time, I think, I also read Catch-22. It seemed appropriate. I mostly consumed it during spare scraps of time in the lunchroom.

    Again with the Steinbeck, I’m pretty sure I read The Wayward Bus on a road trip, but I don’t remember the details. It may be that the road-trip story was so powerful I imagined the road trip.

    I read A Confederate General from Big Sur as a guest at friends-of-family’s house (it was their copy). At the time I somehow wasn’t appalled by the homophobia, environmental trashing, and general irresponsibility of its beat characters. Now I can’t read books like that or On the Road without seeing it everywhere.

    Rabbit, Run got tied up with some neverending grey Midwestern winter. Don’t read that book. Updike is depressing.

    I read Cicero’s Pro Cluentio in Latin during late pubescent nights in high school. School was forcing me to get up unhealthily early, so every day I would come home, eat a huge snack, fall asleep on the couch, get up, eat dinner, and then do my homework until late at night. Somehow Latin always happened last. I remember the blue armchair where I sat with my dictionary (still mine, now worn), and my handwritten word list, and my text, puzzling out the silver-tongued orator’s endless sneaky periods.

    I read In Praise of the Stepmother the summer I took my first real lover (as in in-love love). That was a decadent summer, in the best sense of the word.

    I remember reading (or trying to read) Euripides one lush, green college summer. It was a non-credit course, and most of us flaked. Greek dramatic poetry never did it for me. Homer, the year before, was incredible… I recall vividly spending my spring break sleeping in and memorizing the poem-within-a-poem about Aphrodite’s affair with Hephaistos. Our instructor made us all learn it by heart because, he said, “When they hear you’re studying Gree, your friends and relatives will demand that you say something in Greek, and you’ll be at a loss for words. Who speaks a dead language? So learn something that sounds really impressive.” How right he was. Thanks to the primacy effect, I remember only the first three lines now.

    One summer in college, a girlfriend and I attempted to read The Silmarillion to each other, and failed. Every time, either the reader or the readee or both would fall asleep mid-sentence. That was when I was working as a sysadmin for the university.

    After my summer internship in San José, I couch-surfed and applied for jobs. I read Philip K. Dick’s The Transmigration of Timothy Archer late one night during all of this. It is the most human and poignant of his novels by far. I identified with the protagonist somehow, trying to make sense of her weird life and hold together the crazy world around her.

    I got a job. I remember reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon in my Indiana apartment as I packed to move to San José. It gave me some distorted ideas about how start-up life would be, as well as some realistic ones. That was a poignant time, but exciting.

    I hated San José (sorry, Valley people). During this time I discovered Francesca Lia Block, starting with Weetzie Bat. Since then, her books have been veggie soup for sad times in my life. I save them up.

    I read Mrs. Dalloway’s Party during a brief trip home. I had taken up casual smoking (please don’t ask me why), and the smell and calm of smoke pervaded the meandering tale. I loved it. I put an end to that soon (both the smoke and the Woolf — I later read Orlando, which put me off her for sometime. See the Tilda Swinton movie with the Dead Can Dance soundtrack instead! Ah, Tilda Swinton [swoon].)

    There are more, usually attached to one topos or another that I just mentioned, but I’m running out of time. What a great question. Answering it has evoked all kinds of forgotten memories for me. I had a magical childhood, and a magical time in college. I owe so much to my parents. I want to help make an America where more, not fewer, children have these opportunities.

    Read in peace,

    PS: Just as often as I imagine new faces for characters, I imagine my friends or acquaintances in book roles. Sometimes, if I don’t know them well, this affects my opinions of them in real life! That’s bad.

    1. “This might get long.” — Although it took me a few days to get a chance to read this with the attention it deserves, long comments are my favorite comments. :)

      Grandpa’s shack in the Swiss Alps: that makes complete and utter sense from a child-reader perspective. (When does that change? Today, I wandered around a cemetery with friends, all of us imagining the Angels from Doctor Who in our surroundings—but I can’t remember the last time I did that with a book.)

      It’s fascinating to see your slow transition in literary tastes as you aged (along with the outliers that bookish children often seem to have, like Ms. Rand). Utterly fascinating, and well-phrased, and generally a delight to read. Thank you.

  5. There’s a book called “The Body Remembers” which discusses this in detail. Basically, memories aren’t just stored in the brain, they’re also stored in the body. Any experience you have, especially ones that are memorable, for either good or bad reasons, that entire context, entire scene gets associated with that memory. Limbic type responses get established. It becomes so unconscious you’re not consciously aware. Mere side of a red barn brings up an emotion you can’t understand, and it might take careful therapy to remember why, oh, because of an experience I had decades ago. That memory gets stored in your body, physical responses, emotions, associated sensations, and when that memory is accessed, all that sensory, somatic memory comes up, and your body is reliving the experience again. Good state, all pleasurable. However, can be terrifying if it’s trauma related.

    Probably doesn’t directly answer your question, but I think it has something to do with it.

    1. Yes! That could indubitably be tied into it. I imagine that most book-reading is less high-emotion than a trauma or a strong pleasure, but I would not be surprised if it’s nonetheless the same kind of memory kicking in.

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