The Spirit of Reading by David Rockower
My eleven-year-old daughter, Maddie, will occasionally leave a poem, a letter, or note on my pillow, her tiny print scrawled over half-sheets of wrinkled paper. These notes–filled with her wonderings, frustrations, and hopes–are gifts. They give me glimpses into the parts of her life she doesn’t often share through conversation. Last week, she couldn’t wait until bedtime, so she read me her latest right after school.
“Dad,” she said. “I was sitting alone on the bus today, and I just thought of this. Can I read it to you?” she asked.
She cleared her throat, and in a soft, serious tone, said,
“When I read, I’m a ghost next to the characters. They can’t see me, but I’m really there.”
“Please read that again,” I said.
She smiled, read it again, and giggled. I shook my head, amazed.
“What? She asked. “You like it?”
“That, my dear, is beautiful.”
I’d been thinking about exploring the idea of what reading means to me, to the kids I teach, and to all book lovers. We often hear how books are an escape from reality, how they broaden our understanding of the world, foster empathy, and push us to lead fuller lives. While I believe all of this is true, there’s something else about reading–something I’ve never been able to articulate–that makes it such a magical experience. Maddie’s idea that we are “ghosts next to the characters” spoke to me.
I don’t feel like a ghost in every book I read. When reading is a chore, when I’m not invested in the characters, or when I’m lost or confused, I’m outside looking in. But, when a character feels authentic, and I’m hanging on her every word, decision, and action, I become a shadow inside the pages. The best books create a magical blur between our own reality and the story we’re experiencing.
I can’t see the faces of the characters I read about; I visualize outlines of their bodies, general shapes and sizes. Sometimes this bothers me, because I know them so well–their deepest fears, who they love, and what motivates them. When I’m living inside the story, I silently urge them to make better decisions (they rarely listen), but they will sometimes surprise me: what I thought was the wrong choice ends up having a positive impact on another character. I learn from this.
Being a ghost, I’ve learned, does not preclude me from having emotional reactions. Indeed, ghosting inside a story allows me a unique type of intimacy with places, problems, and people. Unlike viewing images on a screen, ghosting requires immersion, a sort of virtual reality without the haptic suit or the goggles. When the description is rich, I can inhale the dense humidity of Alabama summers, run my fingers along the bark of a mammoth California redwood, and wiggle my toes in the sand of an Australian beach.
When characters are faced with a life-changing decision, I am forced to consider how I would deal with such dilemmas. It is here, in these moments, that my belief system is challenged, and I feel compelled to confront my default; I’m pushed to explore why, at times, I’ve been so sure that choosing A is right and B is wrong. As a ghost, I have the power to freeze time, rewind and re-experience heightened moments. This affords me a unique opportunity to consider and reconsider why I’m so moved by a character’s decision.
When someone asks me, “What’s your favorite book?” I have trouble answering. I typically list a few of my favorites, and they all have one thing in common: memorable characters. Though plot and setting may become foggy over time, the heart of the characters remains. After haunting the innermost thoughts, conversations, traumas, and successes of characters crafted by my favorite authors, I am left with a permanent imprint. The mere memory of them will cause a visceral reaction. I can conjure them in a heartbeat, simply by recalling their lives, conflicts, and choices. Because these characters’ experiences span the spectrum of emotions, this is both a blessing and a curse. While I cannot erase the horrors I witnessed alongside them, I am able to cling to the warmth and joy they felt during their best moments.
So, yes, from time to time I become an apparition–who doesn’t want to believe in ghosts? We are always looking for proof that spirits exist, that there are otherworlds just beyond our reach. What if we are the ghosts? What if all the worlds that authors create are playgrounds for us–the ghosts–to inhabit and explore? What if moving seamlessly between our world and the dream worlds of authors is proof that magic exists?
For years I’ve been grasping for the right words to explain my love of reading. Leave it to an eleven year old to state it simply, “When I read, I’m a ghost next to the characters. They can’t see me, but I am really there.” Yes, Maddie. Isn’t it amazing that we can transform ourselves anytime we like? Maybe, when we do it often enough, and we come back to reality, share what we witnessed, and listen to other ghost stories, our transformation bleeds into reality, and changes us–permanently.
David Rockower is a teacher and freelance writer. He has published articles in The Washington Post, Education Week, Catalyst for Change, and is a regular columnist in State College Magazine. With a sports-obsessed 13-year-old son, a spirited 11-year-old daughter and a goldendoodle who looks like a Muppet, he has a lot to write about.