Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Enchantment of Fiction

By April D. Boland

What is it about books that draws us in? What is that special something that allows literature, with its plots, its characters and its language, to affect many of us so deeply? This is the mystery - the enigma - that dedicated readers, writers and bibliophiles constantly wonder about.

In today's culture, many people don't want to read. Entertainment that you just sit and absorb like a sponge bombards us from all directions. Consequently, readership rates have plunged since previous decades, as many kids today are more interested in spending their time on Myspace and YouTube than in going to the library. There are, however, clues that tell us that reading endures, that books have not yet gone the way of Fahrenheit 451. Take, for example, the sheer phenomenon of J.K. Rowling's success. The fact that kids want to wait outside bookstores at midnight in order to get their hands on the latest Harry Potter installment tells us that there is still a magical attraction towards literature, even if we cannot define or contextualize it. Likewise, consider the outrage with which many people reacted to the potential replacing of university library books with a computerized system. Something within many readers cries out to finger the spine, to hold and turn the pages, to hold onto a literary past that seems to be rapidly slipping away.

Literature transports us from wherever we are and whatever we're doing to somewhere that, most of the time, we could never be in any other way. We become able to live dozens of lives vicariously through characters that we love and hate. Without fiction, how would any of us know what it is like to be a boy wizard with a mortal enemy? Two lovesick teens from rival families in Verona? Individuals from different castes who are forced together during the tumultuous times that followed the partitioning of India? Readers of fiction are always learning, whether it is about a different time, place and culture, or just about human nature. And in doing so, we are learning about ourselves. We cannot answer questions about who we are and where we are collectively going without such knowledge, and literature provides it.

Sometimes as I read, I feel that the author has articulated something I feel most deeply but have not been able to articulate. How many countless individuals do these authors speak for in addition to myself? Perhaps that is why literature lives on despite competing interests. We may not be living in a book-based culture since the advent of the Internet and all that has come with it, but there are a few subversive factions of us who remain loyal to our roots. The mystery of fiction's intense appeal is one that will carry us through, perhaps on the wave of technology but nonetheless, into a new age where our literary love may change, but will not disappear.

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