The precise moment when reading changed – from joining phonics to describe the banal adventures of monosyllabic, assonant characters into a method of discovery, of adventure, of refuge – is unidentifiable. And yet the development of our sense of self benefitted from this transformation enormously. Reading is such an intensely personal experience that those first books we read without adult narration are formative of how we see the world and shape our ideals accordingly.
Reading our own stories gave us a sense of independence – one initially manifested in reading one more chapter by illicit torchlight. Unlike watching television, which is influenced at the very least by the presence of other people in the room, reading offers an intimate adventure in which you can much more easily participate. Where television encourages a passive sort of entertainment as the garish excitement presents itself on the screen, reading requires a feat of imagination, perceptibly linking the reader’s self with the character.
It is the privacy of the experience that makes the impact of books so much greater: because we develop an incomprehensible bond with the protagonist, it is only natural that we adopt their ideals, and envy those adventures that they could experience in their fictional form but which we were denied in our real selves. As we meet them in imaginative isolation and on our own terms, the influence of their thoughts is almost like the temporary conflation of two selves. When we emerge from their imaginary world we are not unstained by its influence. I don’t think I am alone in the childhood disappointment of the backs of wardrobes remaining stubbornly solid and holidays failing to turn into mysteries to be solved. The Famous Five’s perpetual luck in finding adventure in even the most innocent location filled me with the intense belief that adventure was out there waiting for me, if I could only find it. As a child the likelihood of four children (and a dog) overpowering criminal gangs every school holiday does not strike us as questionable, and rather forms part of an essential belief in our own abilities. While those stories set us up for inevitable disappointment as the real world progresses far from the excitement we experience between the pages, the adventures found there are instrumentally didactic in instilling self-belief and fearlessness through which we can experience the more mundane threats of reality.
Just as those fictional portrayals of childhood describe children independent from adult realities, in many ways, the act of reading alone is equally important. While we might seek to imitate the adventures of fictional counterparts, our exploration of their worlds is in itself equal to their adventures. For the first time, we are consciously discovering something without parental supervision, imaginatively meeting people that they do not know, and trying out personal worlds that no one but ourselves can ever hope to inhabit. The ease with which the values of those worlds come to affect our own perceptions is, therefore, unsurprising. Essential qualities, such as bravery against an opposing conformity, are developed within us as we follow children, whom we understand extensively, as they challenge and overcome their personal enemies. Set in comparatively fantastical landscapes such as the hostility of The Edge or the rural idylls dominating the traditional worlds of Anne Shirley and Morpurgo adventures, significant empathy is required to understand the narrative. This links us more closely to the protagonist’s struggles and makes it easier for their more admirable selves to pertain in our subconscious, long after we emerge from their world.
In so many ways, independent reading becomes an umbilical cord for transferring desires and embedding moral values. The experiences of our fictional counterparts shape how we interpret our own world. This may set us up for disappointment due to the ordinariness of reality, but it also develops a strength within us, an arsenal of fictitious experience with which to defy its unremarkable challenges.