Barbara Fister is an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, where she buys books with other peoples’ money, shows students the ropes of research, and teaches courses on international crime fiction, research strategies, and the place of books in contemporary culture. She writes a weekly column and occasional features for Library Journal, reviews books for Mystery Scene Magazine and Reviewing the Evidence, blogs about Scandinavian crime fiction, and looks for time to write her own mysteries. Her second Anni Kokinen mystery, Through the Cracks, comes out in May. According to Publishers Weekly, “thoughtful attention to the complexities of police work and social justice lift this gritty mystery well above the norm. Koskinen's empathy with both cops and victims as well as her fierce, brittle independence make her easy to root for."
Lost (and Found) in Booksby Barbara Fister
Victor Nell, a psychologist, conducted experiments to find out how using your eyes to decipher squiggles on sheets of paper can immerse us in an imaginary experience that somehow offers transcendence from everyday life. What’s going on in our heads when we’re “lost in a book”? What is it that leads us to hit the pause button on our own existence, check our prejudices, personal history, and time/space coordinates at the door, and deliver ourselves willingly to a vicarious experience, spending hours absorbed in an activity that has no practical purpose? In Lost in a Book, Nell called this phenomenon ludic, which comes from the Latin word for “play,” though it is one Latin root that has very nearly disappeared from our language. (Have our lives have become too purposeful?) When we’re in this peculiar state of mind, we are no longer aware we are reading, only aware of the sensations and events in the story itself.
Ludic reading isn’t indolent escapism, however. Though critics of the novel in the 19^th century warned that reading fiction was like using opium, a drug that induced craving for more, but dulled the intellect, reading fiction actually engages more of the mind than many other activities, such as watching a story on film. Reading can be so intense an experience that it shuts out all other distractions and becomes totally absorbing. And it’s a form of thinking that engages both cognitive and emotional parts of the brain. Other researchers have found reading fiction can enhances one’s ability to engage in empathy, appreciate diversity, and understand social issues better than non-narrative forms of writing can do. Reading for pleasure can help us understand ourselves and the world.
Yet curiously, one of the defining qualities of this kind of reading tends to be that it doesn’t serve any purpose other than itself. When we read for pleasure, we aren’t seeking information, but what we encounter enters our knowledge base. We come away from a book knowing more than we ever thought we wanted to know about Laos or change ringing in English churches or how to crack a safe. We are learning—but without ever having to worry whether what we’re reading will be on the test.
I think there’s a corollary, ludic writing. When I was drafting the final chapters of my third mystery, Through the Cracks, I finally had enough time away from work to focus, and the story was far enough along that it began to take on a momentum of its own. That’s when I realized that much as I enjoy the nuts and bolts of writing—the crafting of sentences, the pacing of a scene, the constant revising that trims out the unnecessary bits or finds a new way to hide important information in plain sight—there is a very different kind of writing experience, a transcendent state that is intensely pleasurable. When I finally reached that point, it ceased to be craft and became an alternate reality, more vivid, more intense than real life. During those weeks, I would emerge from the story, confused about what day it was, what month—because the moment I had been in was ticking away on book-time.
I told my husband that it reminded me of playing “let’s pretend” when I was a kid, another experience that was all-immersive. We’d set up a scenario, become other people, and leap into an improvised world, only coming back to earth when we heard our parents calling for us to come in. “No, it’s not dark yet,” we’d argue, though it was. Our eyes had so gradually adjusted to twilight, we hadn’t noticed the stars coming out. Those summer evenings were a special in-between place, where anything could happen, but when it was time, we knew we’d always find our way home.
When we read or write fiction, we’re remembering something that was lost at around age twelve, when self-consciousness became too demanding to allow ourselves the pleasure of imaginary play. We’re too busy creating a self that will fit into the world, too aware of ourselves, yet at the same time too insecure about who we’re becoming, to leap wholeheartedly into an improvised imaginary world.
But that magic isn’t gone for good. When I read a mystery that works so well that everything else fades away, or when I’m writing a story and forget what time it is, it’s almost like being back in that summer twilight: our eyes have adjusted to the dark, our imaginations are fully open. Anything can happen, but we’ll still get home safe.