How reading links fiction and lived experience

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Bahar Orang
ANDY Editor

When I was nine years old, I had a daydreaming problem. I woke up each morning just as the sun was rising, and in a warm bath of golden light, I would drift away to another world. My daydreams were so elaborate, so dense, that I can still recall particular scents and sounds of those childhood fantasies. I remember one especially long story, where I was riding a beautiful brown horse all over the world. Everyday I imagined the next chapter, and I saw myself in empty meadows, fantastical villages, and on the streets of Tehran. My mother would come in to ready me for school almost two hours later. I was always excited for bedtime, because I knew I could imagine things until I fell asleep. In class, this became a bigger problem because I regularly sat somewhere in the back and dozed off to far more exciting places.

I was lucky to have an extremely kind and thoughtful teacher that year, because she promptly diagnosed and cured my problem in one simple request. She offered me a copy of Anne of Green Gables and asked that I read it. She told me that it was her favourite book and said that if I read it carefully enough, it would belong to me. She explained that I might find a friend in Anne. My teacher, Mrs. Parker, knew that I was a gluttonous reader. I was always so insistent on knowing the end of every story that I often read far too quickly. I ate books in one swift gulp, leaving no time to really taste them. So she asked that I read Anne of Green Gables with some patience. And because I was relieved that this was her punishment for catching me looking out the window, I did just as she said.

I sat at the front of the school bus on my way home that afternoon and spent the twenty-minute drive fondling the book. Even though it was so tattered that the spine was almost falling off, I held it like were a stack of newly printed photographs. I only touched the edges, afraid of leaving my fingerprints on its body. I loved Mrs. Parker dearly, and I was immensely pleased that she thought we might enjoy the same story. Reading assumes a kind of shared intelligence, and it was this realization that made me determined to rise to the occasion. I would be the new custodian of this book, I would unpack its contents like it were a suitcase stuffed with fragile gifts. It felt brand new in my hands, even though it must have been decades old.

I read a few chapters every day. I’ll admit, it was difficult to stop myself from reading ahead, but I was able to fight the urge by spending some extra time reflecting on Anne’s most recent adventures. I was a little alarmed at how intensely I could relate to Anne. How could this red-haired girl from Prince Edward Island, who lived over a hundred years ago – how could her story somehow reveal the writings of my mental diary? But the words of the novel had a kind of vitality, a kind of clarity that my own messy thoughts could never muster. I can remember Anne’s face as clearly as I can remember Mrs. Parker’s face. I was breathing when I read that book, and Anne was more than my best friend. Our identities were completely fluid – I influenced her as much as she influenced me. Just as I coloured the shades of her auburn hair and molded her friendship with Diana, she shaped my shapeless daydreams. I too was an open book, and the intimacy of our friendship was not an escape like my daydreams were, but instead a way to contend with my reality.

I lost the book for several months that summer. I eventually found it somewhere in my house, but until then I was thoroughly panicked. My parents even bought me a replacement copy, and it was a shiny new edition with a fancy cover. But I angrily rejected it. I wanted Mrs. Parker’s version – my version. So for some reason, I decided that the logical course of action was to rewrite the story I knew. I opened an empty notebook and tried to write everything I could remember. First I just wrote all the events I could remember, then I rearranged those moments, and then I started adding details and quotes. I wrote only a few sentences at the top of each page, leaving the rest of it blank with the intention of filling in more specifics when they came to me. Of course, my memory reached its threshold and after that I could not remember much more.

So instead, I wrote about my own life in the empty spaces on each page. I connected the fictional stories to my lived experiences, and it thus came to be a process of thoughtful, careful introspection. My experiences helped me to make better sense of Anne’s story, and Anne’s story helped me to make better sense of my life. The two were literally inextricably inside that notebook, and they informed one another in deep and powerful ways. I took complete ownership over Anne of Green Gables. It was different from the story anyone else had ever read.

The world of the text does not exist until it is taken up, imagined, configured, and undergone by each individual reader. This experience awakens and organizes certain memories, thoughts, and desires. We nourish ourselves with the stories we hear and read, we metabolize them and incorporate them into our tissues, derive energy from them, and become more of who we are by virtue of their fuel. Reading is a human act; we do what we do as readers not only for our own good but also because our lives depend on it. Anne of Green Gables allowed me to see myself and my reality more authentically and I felt a sense of responsibility to confront my detachment from life. Anne’s story was my story, and likely the story of so many other children. Novels use the particular, like Anne’s struggle through her circumstances, to reveal valuable knowledge about the universal. My intimate relationship with Anne meant that I could absorb that knowledge so deeply that it moved to action. This is the power of reading; we come in such close contact with stories that they seep into our skin to form our identities and structure the way we think and act.

Photo c/o John Beales on Flickr.

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