One day, I suddenly had the urge to read a novel. But reading is not something I usually do. I am highly dissociative, so I cannot concentrate on the words in a book long enough to finish it. In my university days when I was required to read one whole chapter before going to class, I would sometimes read from back to front, or some other nonlinear fashion. My retention rate was very low, though my time investment was very high.
But one day, I started to borrow a novel from the library. I have always been enchanted by novels. Entering a bookstore is like entering some wonderland. I am forever captivated by the visual effects of book covers.
Thus my reading began. It was an easy read. After finishing, I borrowed another one. Then another. Soon, I realized I was gaining momentum. Then I had an idea: keep a list of books that I’ve read, and build that list up to fill up the entire sheet of paper. A reading adventure!
The idea itself enthralled me!
Had I chosen to start the adventure at step zero, the idea probably would have just died without seeing the light of day. But to start the idea at step two or three, now, suddenly that seemed very feasible. In fact, it was very enticing!
Throughout the adventure, I notice certain psychological changes in me–my psychological shifts between books.
I was first hooked by the emotional thickness of the first few novels. They were women’s fiction written by female authors. The most alluring part of a story to me is its emotional content, and I enjoy emotionally comforted by the voice of the author. That was how I developed my fondness in the first few books.
Then as I read more novels, I realized I was branching out to different writing styles. There was no emotional nourishment in some of the novels, but I was okay with that, because I would enjoy other aspects of the books, like the plot and the structure. Then I realized, I was gradually opening my mind to a wider variety. I was quite happy with my ability to explore a wider scope of literature, and in the process, learned a few things about history, humanity, and themes outside of my life and those of my friends’ lives such as open marriages and matriarchy. It is a great way to train my ability to open my heart and my mind, to accept diversity, and to enjoy doing so.
As I continued my reading, I noticed the adventure became more of a project. It is the difference between work and play. In a project, I am goal-oriented. In an adventure, I am fun-oriented.
Despite the drop in emotional enjoyment, I was intellectually engaged, and that’s fun too. I started to notice the plot. Some novels have strange story arcs! The arc alone intrigued me as to how the author could shape it in unforeseeable ways. A good book is designed to surprise!
At that point, I began to predict the arc as I started each new book, honing in on the main points of the story, ignoring extraneous details that were simply filling up pages without actually contributing to the plot, etc. Soon, I realized that the books were training me to be sharp! I love that!
Some stories have a greater impact on us. There was one book that challenged and changed my understanding about my own world. It was a true story written by a woman with a fugitive childhood. I couldn’t understand how someone growing up in that kind of instability could be functioning normally as an adult, until I discovered one key point: the child was deeply loved, and more importantly, she had always felt loved. Love increases resilience. That’s when I understood, I was traumatized not because of any dire life circumstances, but mainly because I did not and could not feel love. And by extension of that logic, I think the shortest path to my healing would be to feel love!
There are some stories with no depth. They exist for other purposes, ie. to entertain. They tend to have a great vibe. So sometimes I just enjoy the vibe without necessarily enjoying the story. Then I learned that there are many different elements to enjoy in a novel. If we’re not too picky, I think we can usually enjoy at least one or two things in a book. Same can be said about an object, a situation, a job, a relationship.
Aside from borrowing story books, I also borrow encyclopedias, poetry collections, etc. What I notice among the books is that different categories of books require different reading pace. For example, a book made up of poems would be a slow read for me, as the effects of the poems take more time to sink in my head, which means I need to be in the mood for it, at a time when I feel like I have all the time in the world so that I can just let the words of the poems gradually seep into me. Quite meditative! It’s like I would need a different mental space in my head to read poems in.
Included in my list of fiction books are also some memoirs. They affect me differently. They are deep, personal, genuine, raw. Even after I have finished them, psychologically I still linger over them as if I haven’t finished processing them. The difference between fictional and real life stories is that the latter tend to have more depth and breadth, and the interweaving of multiple dimensions is not only overwhelmingly complex, but also very subtle in a very realistic and human way, an effect that fictional stories usually cannot manufacture. It is through these depth and breadth that the real life stories lend me a chance to review some of my own life experiences, and to make sense of them from a different perspective. We see others in ourselves, and we see ourselves in others.
As my reading project continues, I am sure more psychological shifts, understandings, and discoveries await me. While traveling is an adventure in the outer world, reading is an adventure in the inner world. The characters, the plots, the rhythms, the writing styles, etc., all are parts of the experience and each has the ability to affect our inner world in unpredictable ways. How much we allow a story to affect us depends on how stretchable and flexible our inner landscape is.
I hope you will experience meaningful and surprising psychological shifts in your inner world too!