Reading and the intensification of experience

My calendar reminded me this weekend that I should be headed to Sydney in a month’s time for my annual business and coaching trip … obviously cancelled for this year as borders remain firmly closed for the foreseeable future. I was also reminded, however, of one of the many enriching experiences I had when I was in Australia last year. Last June, I popped into a bookshop in Manly, and happened to come across some detective fiction books by an Australian author whose work I hadn’t come across before, but who had obviously achieved some acclaim, as at least one of her books had featured in The Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller List. Her name was Jane Harper, and while her books looked fascinating, I knew that I wouldn’t have space to carry them back with me, so I reserved them online on the City of Edinburgh Libraries website, and picked them up almost as soon as I returned home.

I finished all three – enjoyable light reads, with stimulating twists and quirks, and I was particularly struck by the evocation of the Australian wilderness, of which I have had some experience, albeit temporary, fleeting and superficial … even to glimpse it, however, is to be awed. Once seen, never forgotten.

One phrase in Jane Harper’s The Dry struck me between the eyes as soon as I read it, and has lodged itself in my brain; I cannot shake it. Breathtakingly unsettling, it captures exactly the stifling experience of apparent nothingness in the unimaginably enormous, dry Australian desert, made more poignant because of the subsequent bushfires in the country only a few months after I read the book. The phrase comes in this passage, where the author describes how newcomers feel when they move to a property out in the country …

“On arrival, as the empty moving truck disappeared from sight, they gazed around and were always taken aback by the crushing vastness of the open land. The space was the thing that hit them first. There was so much of it. There was enough to drown in. To look out and see not another soul between you and the horizon could be a strange and disturbing sight.”

“Crushing vastness” …. words on a page, yes, but also a powerful blow to my consciousness, recalling and intensifying previous experiences, and giving words to shape them and draw meaning out of them. In that moment of reading, there was a fusion of past and present, real and imaginary; and a truth emerged. I’d like to think that everyone who has ever read has had this experience; if not, keep reading until you do …

Reading works the other way round too; think about the times when you have read a book, and then – months or years later – have had an experience which triggered the memory of the words on the page, by which suddenly made sense of them. Again, if this has not happened to you yet, keep reading!!

Reading books opens doors to new worlds and to parts of our existing world which we have not yet fully explored. Especially at this time in our history, when physical travel is impossible, I cannot imagine a world without the richness of reading and books. Can you?

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