In Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk wrote about one of her women characters, “Never, never did she feel in life the sense of recognition, the companionship, the great warm fact of solidarity that she found between the covers of a book.”
In a strange way I have also come to know and befriend some of the people in the books I read. They are usually individuals who confront the same problems I do, have the same aspirations and cultural views that I have or would like to have if I was more sophisticated or better read. They are doing things I have done or dream about doing and they are doing them with greater depth and knowledge than I could ever hope to in my lifetime.
Moreover, I probably know some of my fictional friends better than my real ones. In How to Read and Why Harold Bloom wrote that one of the reasons we read is “Because you can know, intimately only a very few people, and perhaps you never know them at all. After reading The Magic Mountain you know Hans Castorp thoroughly, and he is greatly worth knowing.”
Do the fictional friendships we have bespeak of some kind of malady? Other perfectly normal readers seem to have the same kind of relationships. In So Many Books, So Little Time, Sara Nelson writes: “I talk about my books as if they were people, and I choose them the way I choose my friends; because somebody nice introduced us, because I like their looks, because the best of them turn out to be smart and funny and both surprising and inevitable at the same time.”
And Proust is said to have compared friendship to reading, because both activities involve communion with others. He also noted that reading had a key advantage: “In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its original purity. There is no false amiability with books. If we spend the evening with these friends, it is because we genuinely want to.”
In her introduction to Alice Munro’s short story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain Sarah, Sarah Polley commented that “…I have had a relationship with this story that has been a powerful and as transformative as any I have had with another human being.”
Polley’s expression is surely one most powerful and moving statements I have read about the effects of reading literature. She notes that “The Bear Came Over the Mountain entered my life when I was twenty-one years old. It crept right into me, had its way with me, and shifted my direction in ways I didn’t understand until years later.”
She was inspired by Munro’s story to adapt and direct a film version, Away From Her. Julie Christie stars as a woman suffering the early stages of Alzheimer’s that progresses further and further into darkness. Her husband of 44 years struggles not to lose her while she, in turn, drifts away. Polley says the story reshaped her idea of love and led her to a place that “I am very, very grateful to be.”