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.
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.
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.
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.