“All fiction is a form of madness” – novelist Edward Docx
This week The Guardian posted an article that pretty much confirms what I’ve known my reading whole life: experiences in fiction can carry over into a person’s real life. Reading is a multi-sensory experience. Anyone who loves books can tell you that. We see the words on the page and those words conjure up images in our heads. We feel the texture of the pages as we move them (or we notice the cool sensation of our e-reader. We’re equal opportunity here!). But we also hear the voices of the characters in our heads and sometimes, those voices carry over into our non-reading lives.
Lest you think that fiction causing us to hear voices is abnormal, according to the report, it’s a natural part of reading. At least 19% of the readers who were surveyed noted that the characters “had started to narrate my world” and others imagined how characters would react to what was going on in their lives. More than half of the respondents said that they heard the characters voices while they were reading. This is a phenomenon that is distinct to the reading experience. Readers actively create worlds in their minds and they are able to relate to characters in the stories unlike any other media.
Novelist Edward Docx mentions in the article that we get a glimpse inside the characters’ minds. We know what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling at any give time and we know it precisely. Film and other creative media may be able to convey approximately what someone is thinking or feeling through visual cues, but when we read fiction, we are inside the character’s heads. We know what they’re thinking and feeling because the author tells us so.
When you get to know someone so intimately by gaining insight into someone’s thought process as it’s happening, it’s not particularly surprising that we are able to carry on that experience into other parts of our lives (what psychologist Charles Fernyhough calls in the article “experiential crossing”). As someone who has paused to think WWEBD (what would Elizabeth Bennet do?) on more than one occasion in her life, this article came as no surprise, but it’s still nice to have those feelings validated. When I become attached to characters; they become a meaningful part of my life, and this is a normal part of the reading experience. For anyone who has ever cried when a character died, leaped for joy at a happy ending, experienced a book hangover because the characters are so engrossing or thrown a book across the room because you weren’t happy at an outcome, you’re not alone. This is all part of the glorious, unique experience of reading and it’s something that is unique to fiction.
As purveyors of fiction (among many other things) the library is happy to help you hear voices in your head anytime. Here are a few options that have particular engrossing characters with whom you may just feel like you’re hanging out with long after the covers are closed:
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Hey, we haven’t obsessed about this book in a while! In all seriousness, Clarke gets into her characters’ psyches like few other authors can. This book gave both Arabella and me massive book hangovers (and our blog pseudonyms) because the characters were so engrossing. If you’ve been reluctant to pick this book up because of its size, you may want to consider it because of the experience. These characters’ voices will be with you for some time.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
I never would have expected a book that, in some respects is about moss to be so engrossing. The story follows Alma Whittaker, who is a wonderfully self-possessed woman in 19th Century as she becomes a botanist, falls in love and questions everything she has ever thought to be true in her life. This is a massive reduction of the story that spans continents and generations, but we get a very intense picture of Alma’s internal life throughout this book. Gilbert leaves little question as to what Alma is thinking which gives the reader a solid sense of the character’s voice.
The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
Johnson delves into the minds of privileged teenagers and the people who teach them in this book about where the line is drawn between bullying and harassment. A new teacher begins to get involved in her students lives, thinking that she understands them, their motives and their inner lives, but the picture we get in the intervening chapters where Johnson actually shows us their internal lives is a much different view. You may not want to spend time with these characters personally, but the personalities painted will still stick with you.
The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley
Talk about a book that sticks with you. I was pondering this book, the character’s motives and what I thought I knew about them long after I had returned this book. A man named Smith looks back at events he witnessed as a child, some forty years prior. Hurley delves deeply into this characters psyche and his motivations, only to turn everything on its head in the last chapter. If you’re looking for something that makes you feel like you know someone, but then have to question everything you thought you knew about them this book will serve that purpose, for sure.
Dating Tips for the Unemployed by Iris Smyles
This is an odd book. It’s not quite a book of short stories, but it’s not plot-heavy, either. The closest way I can describe it is as a series of vignettes, funny, honest, sometimes irreverent or explicit, but always in a distinctive voice. While I may have struggled with linking the vignettes together while reading this book, I never had any trouble hearing the narrator’s voice. The 24 episodes in this book will take you through the character’s odyssey of trying to find her own place in the world.
I hope today’s post has perhaps called to mind other instances when you were carried away by a character’s voice or was so engrossed in a story that it stayed with you long after you were done. Till next week, dear readers, feel free to give into the voices in your head!