Readers of fantasy often talk about “world-building,” and I love this term, but of course all good fiction engages in its own kind of world-building. When you write a novel and it doesn’t feel fully-formed and populated, then there’s a good chance that few people will want to read it. The world inside a book, glimpsed from the outside, attracts people to it. And especially in times of loneliness and isolation, the “built world” of a good novel can be a great antidote. I have felt this for a very long time, and if I track my own habits as a reader, I can recall how, in childhood, I would sometimes turn to books for comfort or company. While our own moods are subject to great change, the “mood” inside a beloved novel is a bit more predictable. You can return again and again to a favourite book, and find that, say, whether you’re an adult or a child, Frances Hodgson Burnett still feels like… Frances Hodgson Burnett. And Virginia Woolf still feels unmistakably like Virginia Woolf (who else could she possibly feel like?), even if you haven’t read her since you were in college.
It’s hard to describe why or how any writer’s book feels so particularly like itself, and yet all readers are familiar with this phenomenon. It has something to do with voice, surely, but it’s also more complicated than that. The reassurance you feel from returning to a book you’ve read and loved isn’t all that different from returning to a room where people want to see you (and you want to see them), and where maybe there’s a warm meal waiting, and a chair, and you don’t feel the pressure to do anything at all.
This is not to say that books don’t challenge us; the best ones do, but it can be a pleasurable kind of challenge, one in which you feel yourself waking up from some deep state of unconsciousness, the sluggish brain slowly uncurling. Reading can be exciting in its crisp demands, but it can also be a relief. Our lives are chaotic and difficult and occasionally frightening. Some books are written to feel deliberately chaotic, difficult or frightening too, but in entering their carefully-described worlds, we always retain ourselves even as we become absorbed in the prose. There’s rarely any danger that a book will suck you in and never let you out, and readers understand this. Even as you choose to “go there,” you know that you can leave at any given moment. You do have to open a kind of door to enter the world a writer has created, but it’s always unlocked, whether you’re going in or out. It’s a powerful feeling, this absorption and confidence in a book.
The cliché about reading – that books are your friends – has a tenderness about it, because it suggests that when you’re with a book that you love––just as when you’re with a friend who you love – you need nothing else at all. (It’s a variation on the old “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread – and thou” idea.) I feel that it’s sometimes necessary to remind people of what they might find in books, to help once-readers return to the fold without having to yank them there against their will.
Books, finally, are a solace, a poultice, a way to savour, to rest, to be alert, to get lost, to feel love, and to be profoundly alone while not remotely being isolated. They are, finally, a way to live.
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer is out now from Simon & Schuster for £7.99.