Not lost, but finding

Signing 21 April 2015

I don’t think I’m scared of dying. I never really expected to be born — that came as a surprise. When I was aged about three I stood absolutely still, in the sitting room of our family home, reflecting on the discovery that I could only be me. I couldn’t be my brother for the afternoon, and then return to being me in the evening.

I could also think what I liked, and choose whether or not to say what I was thinking. This privacy of thought, and the control it gave me, was absolutely thrilling. This power over thought compensated for the limitation of only ever being me. In the large, physical world I was limited and puny, but in my mind, I was omnipotent. I could create my internal narratives and entertain myself with them. I became at that moment a writer, though I had not yet learned to read.

This internal mind was not static, I learned; I could nourish it, expand the concept of what being me was, explore the limits of what I could be. This, I discovered later, is done by reading. Years after that, I learned that the place in which I did the reading seemed to have an impact, too.

When we say we are lost in a good book, we mislead ourselves. It is quite the opposite: we are not lost but finding — if not ourselves, then some new way of being, viewing, understanding, making sense of ourselves and the world. The ‘lost-ness’ comes from the experience of being so absorbed in the narrative that we can scarcely hear the nearby conversations, feel the heat or cold, be aware if we are hungry or full, or have a clue as to the hour of day.

Yet are we really ‘lost’; cut off from the physical environment that surrounds us? Or are we actually more completely enveloped within it? Reading is not really solitary; we are engaging with others — the writer, certainly, and the characters, and the new ideas and perspectives. We are never more connected. We are not lost. We are never more found. We are in flow.

Thoughts are not just in our head; moods even less so. They are felt in the gut, the chest, the tips of the fingers — and in the sun, the grass, the smells that surround us. We experience our surroundings differently, not less, and perhaps more, when we are ‘lost’ in a good book, and the environment influences how we feel, how we read, what we understand, and above all what we recollect. Memory heightens its impact, or at least our awareness of it. When we are absorbed in an environment, while reading a book, it is unexceptional to us; we are accustomed. When we recollect, however, it may be quite different. The mountain that towered above us may be little more than a distraction while we are there, but overpowering in the recollection. This sensation may grow over the years, rather than diminish in the way that one might expect; it may dominate as a lead character did, or a new idea. When I lived in Marske-by-the Sea in North Yorkshire, as young child, the towering cliffs just beyond the neighbouring resort of Saltburn marked the end of the long, wide strip of sand that begins at the Tees estuary, and seemed to mark the end of my little world. Its bulbous, towering shape created a formidable presence: inaccessible, almost supernatural; reassuring in sunlight, but almost sinister when overcast, creating an atmosphere that was only fully acknowledged in later years, living in flatter environments. In southern England and the Netherlands, you live without a land mass above you. Earlier this year, an image of this Saltburn cliff, exactly as I recollected it, the permanent backdrop to those childhood years, appeared in news websites alongside a heart-breaking story of two teenage lads who fell to their deaths. It was like I knew them.

Whenever I type, which is a large part of every day, the kinetic energy of the moving fingers generates images of a landscape from the past: the Andean peaks of central Chile, the fjords of Patagonia with their non-flying ducks, Banstead cricket club, the DIY store near Streatham Common station. The images are unwonted, eccentric. Or the digital movement may generate a body-memory of sport: a catch taken, a shot executed. When you score a goal, and the ball flies off the sweet spot, you scarcely feel the sensation physically, and you cannot recollect the impact. It is only the mis-hits that you feel. There is a greater velocity from what feels like the lighter touch. Flow. Only with great effort can we achieve effortlessness.

Reading is a physical activity, not just a mental one. We like the touch and smell of a paper book, and if we use an e-reader and we love the book we will probably purchase the hardback version too, just to have, and to hold.

We are more than the sum of the books we have read, but we are not the same as we would have been had we not read them; not even nearly the same; scarcely fully human.