Last week I picked up the first volume of War and Peace, figuring to entertain myself for a couple of days while waiting for a book to come in the mail. War and Peace opens in tsarist Russia in 1805, at a gathering of members of the upper class. A fascinating thing about this most famous Russian novel is that it begins in French, and for much of the first few chapters the conversations are in French, with Russian narrative, so that only people able read both languages can read the book as Tolstoy wrote it. That rarified upperclass world was one that Count Tolstoy knew. He was not a guy who had to worry if there would be enough beans and rice for dinner.
When I read the opening chapters of that novel I find myself standing in fancy rooms, with elegantly dressed men and women who know how to follow the subtle rules of amazingly privileged people. I don’t know people like that. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in the same room with such people (and if I was, they probably didn’t know I was there).
The book I was waiting for in the mail is one I’m supposed to write a review on, so when it came I switched to it, and that book also takes place in the past, on the island of Jamaica in 1520. Talk about your alien culture—half civilized Spanish sailors brutally encountering native American tribes. Reading that book I could sit in the shade of a tree, regretting the heat, feeling forlorn from the bedraggled outpost of Spanish “civilization” that was the only town.
With both of these books, while my body sat here in my humble but tastefully decorated apartment, in my mind I was in St. Petersburg, Russia, or in a Jamaican forest. Later I was thinking about the four most common ways we can convey stories: (1) telling stories orally, a method that must go back tens of thousands of years, (2) writing, which has been used to tell stories for maybe four or five thousand years, (3) acting in a play, which has been done for more than two thousand years, (4) or with movies, which are about one hundred years old.
These methods can all convey an imaginative story, but here is one huge difference—both stage acting and movies make enormous use of visuals in telling stories, whereas oral story telling and writing are language based. Of the four techniques, however, only writing is purely language.
Through choosing words and putting them in a particular order (and all right, we’ll throw in some punctuation), a writer should be able to take us anywhere with any kind of people. By using words we can walk down the streets of distant planets with giant red suns or walk on gravel paths having conversations with courtiers of King Henry VIII. Amazingly, the imagination will let us picture things that don’t even exist in the real world. What does it say about human beings, by the way, that we can mentally see things that can’t physically exist?
Of the four methods above for telling stories, writing makes the most demands on the imagination, as even oral story telling, when well done, uses variations in sound with gestures and expressions. Or rather than saying that writing “makes the most demands”, I might frame that differently, and say that writing “provides the greatest room” for the playfulness of the reader’s own imagination.
Do some kinds writing make more use of the imagination than others? No doubt yes, but it probably varies by reader. Some readers love to fill in a scene for themselves and will feel a little suffocated by too much detail from a writer, whereas other readers feel their imagination catch fire when a writer offers a richly detailed scene right down to the dust on the lace doilies.
There are other reasons for reading besides applying the imagination, but one of the joys of being human is creating something that didn’t exist before. It’s an amazing capacity, and it’s just fun. Children know it, writers know it. And in practice, readers know it, so that they sit and focus, move their eyes across the letters and lines, letting them turn into words, and as the words begin to speak they turn into images, and then airplanes start to fly, Spanish ships set sail, and detectives think about the clues for who could have committed the crime. Or people in expensive clothes walk into a room speaking French.