Josna Rege

120. I once was lost (and wish I still were)

In 1960s, 1970s, Books, Childhood, Education, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories on August 18, 2011 at 11:05 pm

from Eleanor Farjeon’s The Little Bookroom, ill. Edward Ardizzone

There was that time in primary school when I became so deeply immersed in a book that I completely forgot myself. If there were sounds in the classroom around me I probably subsumed them into the story. Something snapped me out of my reverie, and I looked around at an empty room. My classmates had all gone out to recess and I had been completely oblivious to the clanging of the bell and the ensuing din of chairs scraping, desk lids slamming, and eight-year-olds bursting out into the playground. Although I did perhaps feel a small pang at the thought that no one had bothered to rouse me, I was complacent about my utter disregard for the here and now. The world of books was just as present to me, and for the most part my book-loving family supported, even encouraged, my dreamy absorption in it.

Moomintroll and Snufkin (illustration by Tove Jansson)

Don’t misunderstand me: I wasn’t an introverted child. I spent many hours outdoors, running, biking, tree-climbing, and generally engaged in feats of derring-do. But once I got my hands on a new or beloved novel, I slipped inside it completely, sloughing off my given identity and inhabiting that of the character—or, more often, characters—with whom I most identified, and that of the narrator as well. Sometimes my identification with the imaginary world went a bit too far, as when I read Crime and Punishment and was stricken with an overwhelming sense of guilt, convinced that it was I who had committed the crime. I couldn’t shake off the feeling for nearly a week. It was like a nightmare that continues to haunt even after one has awakened. Perhaps my periodic tuning-out of the world around me allowed me to re-engage in it all the more fully when I emerged, blinking, into the light of day like Kenneth Grahame’s Mole or Tove Jansson’s Moomin coming out of hibernation.

Ratty and Mole, ill. EH Shepard from guardian.co.uk

Strangely enough, while my absorption in a book was total, my ability to fall asleep during the daytime was non-existent. Every time I began to nod off, the sensation of falling would jerk me awake again. While other children took to their beds for an afternoon siesta, I tossed restlessly until my mother gave up and allowed me to do as I wished. Most often, confined to the house with my friends sleeping or otherwise engaged, what I most wished to do was to sail away to Wild Cat Island with the Swallows and Amazons or be transported to Babylon and ancient Tyre with the children in The Story of the Amulet.

Endpaper, 1931 edition, Swallows and Amazons (rosesbooks.com)

Nowadays, however, I seem to have lost my early ability to escape in this way. Graduate study, which valorized critical detachment over identification, didn’t help. The world is too much with me. I can no longer plunge as deeply into other worlds, but keep getting recalled to the mundane. Scattered and distractable, I long for the concentrated abstraction of my youth.

Ever since I was an undergraduate my habit of procrastination has repeatedly brought me up against a mountain of work that must be completed overnight. In those days, however, I had the knack of taking catnaps on command. Once, in my senior year of college, I had seven final papers to write in three days. I remember telling myself that I could afford only a 17-minute break between papers, and instantly plummeting into sleep for precisely that period of time. Nowadays I don’t trust myself enough to take such risks, and set my alarm every school night during the teaching year, even though I invariably waken just seconds before the alarm goes off. More alarmingly, while I still procrastinate, I seem to have lost the ability to churn out the requisite work under pressure. Once tired, I find it very difficult to focus my mind, however pressing my deadline, however many cups of tea I drink. And once over-tired, I can no longer simply give myself up to sleep, however desperately I may want to do so.

In recent years there have been many words and workshops dedicated to The Power of Now, to living fully in the moment. But at the risk of wilful misunderstanding, I suggest a different approach. Living constantly in the moment is exhausting. Losing oneself in a book enables deep concentration, frees one from identification with the tyrannical self, liberates the imagination, and opens up myriad worlds. As George Harrison sings in The Inner Light,

Without going out of my door/I can know all things on earth
Without looking out of my window/I can know the ways of heaven.

While that former slave trader John Newton sang ecstatically, “I once was lost, but now am found,” I dream of losing myself again as once I used to do so easily and so often.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents


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  1. Lovely reflection on “deep reading” and a pleasure to read !

  2. Thank you, Norah. “Deep reading” reminds me of a comic and magical story about the power of storytelling in a wonderful collection of oral tales compiled by the late A.K. Ramanujan, called “What Happens When You Really Listen.” I have lent the book to my father, I think, but will try to get a copy for you. x J

  3. This reminds me of an experience I had while watching Marcel Marceau. I was completely absorbed in the story he was telling through his mime. When a nearby audience member sneezed, I felt as though I had just been awakened and realized that all the people, and the elaborate furniture and decorations that I had “seen” on stage were not physically present. It was a wonderful experience to realize the power of my own imagination, even though I could not again submerse myself in the world to which Marceau’s artistry had brought me.

    • I love this, Claudia, and can visualize it from your telling: the scene Marceau had conjured up, your reverie, the sneeze. You were fully absorbed in the world of the story—and what’s more, a story without words.

  4. Yet again, I am struck by how beautifully you relate memories and experiences Jojo, you really are
    gifted! Thank you for this lovely addition to a mounting collection of great stories Thank you!

  5. Oh, yes, yes, yes! I spent half my childhood lost in books and have never regretted it for a second. I probably learned more that way than in nearly anything else. I forced myself to finish books I didn’t like, too, on the theory that it would teach me how not to write. I was well into adulthood before I could finally dislike a book and not finish it. It felt quite defiant and liberating, so I guess I overdid something that worked well in childhood but not adulthood. (I’m sure there’s a deep lesson there somewhere.)

    It’s rare, but I still occasionally find a book that holds me truly rapt, and I disappear into it until something forces me away. For me, it requires a 19th century imagination, that is, lots and lots of details, descriptions, characters, adventures, drama, intrigue, and not so much in the way of irony except for a touch here and there: if the whole stance is ironic, it’s intellectually fun, but not absorbing.

    Two summers ago, a dear friend was dying and asked me to bring her books. At first, I brought whatever I was reading, but quickly learned that she wasn’t interested in anything that wouldn’t take her out of this world in exactly the way you describe. I think the one she liked best (loved) was John Crowley’s “Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land.” I’d be glad to lend you my copy, if you’d like to get lost for a bit!

    • Dear Sarah, I can think of nothing better than a dear friend reading to me the way you did for your friend. I would love to read that novel you recommend. I don’t think I’ve read anything by John Crowley. From the description on Amazon, it looks rather like A.S. Byatt’s Possession (have you read that?).
      How disciplined of the young you to be determined to finish a book even if you disliked it. (I wish some of my students had that discipline! Some of them seem to think that the mere fact of disliking a text, even a required one, gives them permission to blow it off.) And good for you, in your adulthood, to have gone on to liberate yourself from that self-imposed duty!
      I like what you said about a book needing to be the product of “a 19th-century imagination” and free from too much postmodern irony to command your rapt (I love that word; why didn’t I use it in the story?) attention. I find many Doris Lessing novels to have those qualities, as well as some Indian novels—some Tagore, Premchand, Amitav Ghosh, earlier Rushdie. Among modern and contemporary British writers, E.M. Forster, some Angus Wilson, Zadie Smith (who models herself on Forster in On Beauty), Andrea Levy, and to some extent Pat Barker. American writers I don’t know so well, but Paule Marshall can be riveting, and most recently, I’ve discovered Ann Patchett, whose Bel Canto drew me in completely (and apparently her latest, State of Wonder, lives up to its title. I also read a novel in translation recently by a French writer, Muriel Barbery, called The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It too transported me as in days of yore. But sadly, the time for summer reading is drawing to a close, and quite soon my only escape from the world will be the times I steal to indulge in Tell Me Another.

  6. Oh, the joy of becoming lost in a book. I still experience that delight from time to time, but it’s true, too often for an adult “the world is too much with us.” We don’t have the luxury we had of children of completely letting go and immersing ourselves in story, because there are so many other responsibilities. As a children’s writer, I still read a lot of children’s books, and those tend to be the ones that can draw me in. (Although Bel Canto, which you mentioned in your comment, is fabulous that way.)

    Thanks for this post, and for alerting me to it!

    • Thank you for this, Beth. As a college teacher I have to read for work, so I don’t get to do enough reading that’s purely for pleasure. I strive to preserve and foster the joy of reading in my students even as I have to teach them how to be critical readers–a difficult balancing act. I think I’m going to start reading some of the more recent children’s literature, since I haven’t encountered anything new since the 1990s, when my son was a boy. I will visit your blog as a guide.

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