By Mary Jo
Last week we went to Canada for a few days. The main reason was to speak to the Toronto Romance Writers, but it was a good excuse to go up early and spend a few days enjoying Our Neighbor to the North. We stayed in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a lovely little historical town on Lake Ontario. It’s even surrounded by wineries. <g>
A good reason for staying there was to see a production at the Shaw Festival, which puts on something like 800 shows a year in Niagara-on-the-Lake. On our night, the show was High Society, a musical version of the classic play and movie, The Philadelphia Story. Even without Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart, it’s still a terrific, romantic story, and the Shaw Festival did it proud.
The cast was talented and the sets delightful. Huge window frames whirled out of the wings to set the scene, then spun around to set another scene. A closet turned into a flight of steps that Tracy Lord could climb, signing. Sure, I could rent a DVD of The Philadelphia Story (and I may do just that—it’s been years since I’ve seen the movie), but there is absolutely no substitute for a live performance.
Live performances have a magic that comes from the audience being physically present in the moment. I’ve loved seeing The Producers and Hair Spray on Broadway, just as I’ve loved hearing a local Celtic music group, Iona, in the basement of a Methodist church. Live performance can sweep you into a rush shared emotion, a group energy that doesn’t exist at home in front of a TV. Much of the magic comes from the fact that a performance is ephemeral: you have to be there to appreciate it.
Reading has its own kind of magic, and partly that’s because a book demands all of your attention. It’s hard to mix a cake and read at the same time (though I’ve done my best.) One can eat and read at that same time—I do that regularly, but the book gets more attention than the food.
Audiobooks are great to pass time in the car during a long drive or while you’re folding laundry or painting a room, but because you’re multi-tasking, the degree of involvement in the story is not as great. Reading a book demands more of you—and because we put in more, we get more out of it. We go deeper, and the rewards are great, at least for those of us who are Real Readers.
Reading in as act of co-creation that occurs when the imagination of the writer meets the imagination of the reader. A dedicated reader brings her own experiences and emotions to a story. I’ve had readers tell me they love my descriptions when in fact I’m not a very descriptive writer. But apparently the few phrases I offer are enough to help readers envision other worlds. I supply the walls, but they furnish the castle from their own rich imaginations.
This is a major reason why there are fewer historical readers than contemporary readers, I think. It takes more imagination and knowledge to read stories with historical settings than to read the modern world, which we’re all more or less familiar with. This is even more true of science fiction and fantasy novels, which create worlds that never existed.
Writing and reading sff requires even more imagination, and the time and energy to exercise it. (A major part of the epic fantasy audience is adolescent males who have both the imagination and the time to read huge tomes filled with complex world building.)
Whatever kinds of reading a person prefers, the love of books is a great gift. A lifetime reader has a richly furnished mind, and is never truly alone. In Jane Aiken Hodge’s biography, The Private World of Georgette Heyer, Hodge says that the only fan letter Heyer kept was from a woman who had been held as a political prisoner for 12 years in Romania. Conditions were harsh and no written material was allowed, but Nora Samuelli had an extremely good memory, and she was able to tell the story of Heyer’s Friday’s Child almost verbatim. She did, over and over, thereby helping to herself and her fellow prisoners to survive and keep their sanity. (Ms. Samuelli was eventually released and found refuge in the USA.)
While I’ve never received such a dramatic letter, some of my most rewarding mail is from readers who says something like ‘I was going through a hard time, and your books helped me make it.’ Nothing about this frequently awkward business makes me happier.
Not that I ever take full credit. My words may have opened up the door to another world, but it’s the reader’s own imagination and curiosity that takes her through that door.
Usually I have a book in my purse if there’s any chance I’ll be stuck somewhere with nothing to do. Early this week, I went in for my annual gyn exam with a lightweight paperback that I could hold over my head and read while waiting for the doctor to come in. The nurse asked if I always had a book with me. I said, “Pretty much.” Doesn’t everyone?
Well, no, not every does read, and these days, with the endless enticements of the internet, hundreds of channels of television, and the addictive delights of computer gaming, there are probably fewer readers than there used to be. But chances are that you wouldn’t be visiting WordWenches if you didn’t totally love books. Specifically, stories. I enjoy a lot of kinds of writing, but stories are my drug of choice. When I was a kid and had vague fantasies of being a writer, I always meant, without defining it, that I wanted to write novels.
A sad thing about writing is that it makes you more critical so it’s not as easy to fall into a book as it was 20 years ago. But there are still books I can fall utterly in love with. There are still books I’ll go back to read again and again.
Life is good. <g>