One day, by mistake, I took home an Edgar Allan Poe collection from the bookmobile. I was in third grade. Reading Poe was like learning a foreign language. I understood every third word. After I’d finally cracked the code of “The Black Cat,” I got it, and I cried. I read the story again the next day, and I cried again. The nasty drunk man plucked out a cat’s eye and then hung (hanged) the cat! It was so crazy. So I read it again. Finally my mom said, “Why do you keep reading it if it makes you cry?” And my answer was always the same: “I don’t know.” Now, 30 years later, I would like to believe that at such an early age I apprehended truth and beauty in a great work of art, an interpretation that pleases me more than the more probable explanation that I was really just a budding masochist.
We all remember being told as children: It’s just a story. I recall being exposed as a boy to that most frightening of children’s books, “The Struwwelpeter.” This collection of dark stories includes such delights as the story of the scissor-wielding figure who would bound gleefully into a room and cut off the thumb of any unfortunate child sucking his thumb at the time. Freudians would find little difficulty in seeing this as being all about castration fears, but for me it was a simple matter of what might happen to you if you engaged in thumb-sucking. I really believed in him, and was suitably frightened.
Although we eventually learn to distinguish between the world of make-believe and the real world, I suspect that many of us continue to experience fictional characters and events as being, in some way, real.
The New York Times has an article about getting lost in fiction with a completely different angle. Apparently, at a time when most of the book world is struggling, publishers of romance novels are actually experiencing growth (“Recession Fuels Readers’ Escapist Urges,” by Motoko Rich).
“Given the general dismay and gloominess,” said Jennifer Lampe, a lawyer in Des Moines and avid romance reader who runs a book blog under the pseudonym Jane Litte at dearauthor.com, “reading something like a romance with a happy ending is really kind of a relief.”