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?

Bookzest Day, Jan. 20: Great success!

My first ever Bookzest Day was a rousing success (and by “rousing,” I mean “very quiet and placid, but gratifying”). For ease of book selection, I began the day by sorting my Book Mountain into four more manageable Mini-Mountains: one for nonfiction, one for fiction, one for magazines, and one for miscellany (books of poetry or quotes, books of photography or illustration, etc.). This is what they looked like:

From left to right: Miscellany, Fiction, Nonfiction. (Magazines in foreground.)
From left to right: Miscellany, Fiction, Nonfiction. (Magazines in foreground.)

I mostly focused my efforts on the Miscellany pile, and got through 1 full-length graphic novel, 2 illustrated books, 3 photography books, and 1-3 articles apiece from 9 magazines.* Although some of these were shorter reads, I figured they were a good place to focus my energies this time, since their hefty covers make them less conducive to casual bedtime reading.

I ended up reading for ~10 hours, which means that I both met and exceeded my goal of spending 2/3 of my waking hours ensconced in books. Hoorah! Of course, my reading quest will never be done. Near the end of the day, my housemate wandered by with a pile of her old college books, and asked if I was interested in any of them… so I accidentally added three new books on Central American indigenous mythology/history to my Nonfiction Mountain (but how could I say no to that?).

I find it a little sad and strange that “reading all day” has become such a rarity/novelty in my life, but I’m glad that I’ve found a coherent way to confront the issue. Henceforth, I am going to try to start doing a Bookzest Day on a monthly basis—or perhaps even twice monthly, if I get ambitious. (Do you have a spare day? Try it yourself! At least one friend of mine joined in this time, and she was very successful.)

Happy reading!


*Complete reading list, for the silly folks who like details (in chronological order, no less): How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You (Matthew Inman); ZooBorns (Andrew Bleiman & Chris Eastland); Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama (Alison Bechdel); Nonsense Botany & Nonsense Alphabets (Edward Lear); Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species (Joel Sartore); Katharine Hepburn: A Life in Pictures (Pierre-Henri Verlhac); and then assorted articles from my backlog of issues of National Geographic Magazine, Nature Conservancy Magazine, Audubon Magazine, Curve Magazine, and Paste Magazine.

Bookzest Day (AKA Read ALL the Books)

Hi. My name is Molly, and I’m a bookoholic. I love books, and I collect them nigh-obsessively. As such, I have rather a large backlog of books in my house. Although I am very excited to read every last one of them, I adopt books faster than I can read them. My Book Mountain currently looks like this:


On a normal day, I’ll wake up and immediately jump on my computer. This is not an unproductive thing to do, as all my freelance work is done through the computer, and I do also spend a good amount of free time reading enlightening articles online. However, productive as this can sometimes be, it does not help to diminish my Book Mountain.

Thus, I’m going to try something new. I am going to wake up… and I am going to read. And I am going to spend the whole day reading, like I did when I was younger and less computer-dependent. How much of my Book Mountain will I manage to work through? Only time and perseverance will say. (My very first Bookzest Day was January 20, 2012; others will follow whenever life allows.)

Here are my rules:

  • I will spend at least 2/3 of my waking hours reading.
  • I can break for food and furtive email-checks, but I may not accidentally while away the whole day online.
  • I’m free to read anything—fiction, nonfiction, magazines, maple sugar catalogs—as long as it’s not on the computer.
  • Since this is an effective and enjoyable way to delve deeper into my Book Mountain, I will try to repeat it monthly or bimonthly.

If you also suffer from a case of the Book Mountains, why don’t you join me? Or if you’re busy on an Official Hermitina Bookzest Day, why not block out a free day on your calendar right now, and institute that day as your own Bookzest Day?

(P.S. “Read ALL the books” is an allusion to Hyperbole and a Half’s very funny This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult post. If you haven’t read it, it may benefit you.)

In the garden

Have you read The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett? That book was a favorite of mine when I was a bairn, but not for any of its characters. Instead, its appeal lay within the titular garden: a magical, private nature-place, neglected and overgrown, but receptive to care. Through its fresh moor air and roses, it changes a sullen child into a vibrant one, an imperious brat into a warm friend, and it even manages to heal a shattered family. Near the end of the book, the roaming patriarch of the family hears his deceased wife calling to him in a dream. He asks where she is, and she replies, “In the garden, in the garden!” He gallops home and reunites with his son and niece, who have become robust and joyful by the mere influence of the outdoors. It’s a little dubious, but it’s very romantic.

I suppose my point is that I always expect to be magically revived by gardening — and, oddly enough, I sometimes am.

In front of our house, we have a little scrap of dirt that, each spring, we convert into a semblance of a garden. Read More