Fictional Conversations

Looking back into your own past along the landmarks of your life, you will find that great readings occupy a place no less significant than actual happenings. For instance, a long and adventurous journey through strange lands which you undertook in a certain year may in retrospect appear no less memorable than your first exploration of A la recherche du temps perdu, or again you might realise that your encounter with Anna Karenina or with Julien Sorrell proved more momentous than meeting most of your past acquaintances. Pierre Ryckmans

In a recent exchange with a writer whose vision is not what it used to be, I inquired if she had ever considered listening to audiotapes of books. I thought she might object to the practice because they make it almost impossible to add passages to her commonplace book, as she is an avid commonplacer.

She replied that her major objection to an audiobook is that it brings a third voice into the conversation between the reader and the person heard in reading the text. It is as if the conversation we have while reading changes from a duet to a trio. She put it this way, “Reading for me generates a conversation between the author and myself, an exchange between our two minds.”

When I first read her statement, I thought she was referring to the conversation between the person in the story and the reader, not that between the author and the reader. When I am reading Ian McEwan’s Saturday, I converse with Henry Perowne, not McEwan.

When Perowne says, “…statistical probabilities are not the same as truths” or “It’s a commonplace of parenting and modern genetics that parents have little or no influence on the characters of their children,” I tell Henry how much I agree with him, not Ian. This may seem like a small, almost trivial distinction but it isn’t to me when I become as engaged by a novel and its characters as I did while reading Saturday.

Keith Oatley made this point recently in his online magazine OnFiction. He wrote that like a real conversation between individuals, we also come to draw inferences about what the other person is thinking and feeling when we read about a character in a book. “When we need to make inferences we come to understand a character better, and can identify with that character more strongly.”

Do we “talk” to the characters on the page like we do when we have a face-to-face conversation with someone? If not, what distinguishes the two? It is said that individuals who live a solitary life, without much in the way of social relationships are likely to suffer far more personal and health-related problems than more sociable individuals.

But what about those solitary souls who spend their life engaged in “talking” with characters in books? Do they also suffer from the same problems solitary non-readers do? And might these vicarious conversations and the inferences made in this process avoid the purported deleterious effects of living alone?

It is the person on the page, not his or her creator that I talk to, come to know, and often come to regard as a friend. The relationship I have with imaginary individuals is often quite real, especially those who occupy my favorite books as I have previously mentioned here.

“I am convinced that many novel-readers go to a book not merely for the story but for the companionship of the teller of the story—they want a friend with a somewhat greater knowledge of the world than themselves, one who knows the clubs, a good cigar, Tangier and Singapore, who has perhaps dallied with strange women and read odd books, but remains friendly, smiling, tolerant but indignant when the reader would be indignant, always approachable and always without side.” Anthony Burgess