Someone once said, “Don’t read a book unless it is like a ball of light glowing in your hands.” I think that’s a reasonable standard. If you allow them, serendipity and your intuition are likely to lead you to such glowing balls of light. J.R.R. Tolkien called fantasy writing “subcreation.” Reading fiction is also a subcreation, because the reader uses the text as a screenplay and subcreates his own movie that is based on the book but is also his own unique creation. The ability to subcreate such inner movies may be essential to the evolutionary event horizon we are hurtling toward. At the end of an interview with Terence Mckenna (on the subject of virtual reality) the interviewer asked, “So, in the future we’ll all be living in the movies?” “No,” replied Terence, “in the future we will all be movies.” New VR hardware is not necessary to bring that about since we become movies everyday when we dream, and in the case of mutual dreaming, the movie can be shared. When you become absorbed in a work of fiction it is very much like mutual dreaming. You enter a landscape of people, places and events that has been visited by others who have had parallel, but not identical experiences. Writing and reading are essentially telepathic technologies. This card I am writing is flowing out of my inner thoughts and you, the reader, however displaced in space and time,are now picking up on those private thoughts through the technologies of language and internet.
Although all mammals dream, the capacity for creative interiority that allows a person to subcreate his own inner movie based on a book he is reading is uniquely human. Never having that participation mystique experience with a great work of fiction may be a more fundamental deficit than never having had sex, or never having been able to see or hear since it is more uniquely human. Although movies are presently the queen of the arts, they can incorporate all other art forms, novels have unique advantages such as interior monologues, and are unparalleled in their ability to take you inside a character. Seeing characters through the eyes of a wise, old soul who is also a master novelist (George Elliot’s Middlemarch is a shining example) can teach you more about human nature than a shelf full of psychology books or superficial social time spent with actual human beings. Writing is still the art form with the least mechanical resistance; there is an infinite special-effects budget, whereas to present a great fantasy work as a series of movies may take hundreds of millions of dollars. The most available time-travel experiences for me have been through reading. For example, the world of 19th-century England is exotically different than the world I grew up in, but I feel as if I’ve been there because I have logged so many hours in that world from having seen it through the eyes of some of the greatest novelists, like Charles Dickens. A great advantage of traveling in the 3D, or virtually through reading, is that you are able to see the world you live in more sharply, you can triangulate your position better because you’ve experienced other times and places. Great writing set in a time that is exactly contemporary to the time you live in can also allow you to see the world you live in with greater depth. William Gibson, who is credited with inventing the cyberpunk genre with his first novel, Neuromancer, has switched in his last two novels (Pattern Recognition and Spook Country) to writing in contemporary time. Gibson’s powers of observation and evocation are such that these two contemporary novels have greatly enhanced my ability to see the world I already live in, as well as to gain experience of obscure subcultures.
On the practical level, most modern lives occur in a time ghetto, where urgent unimportant things — the ringing cell phone, etc. tend to predominate over important non-urgent activities like reading. Getting that participation mystique bonding with a book usually requires a block of time, and many people find blocks of time hard to come by. I also find that reading text off a white page is stressful and unpleasant for my eyes after a certain point, and I have too much active energy to sit still in a chair for long stretches of time. Most of my reading takes the form of audio books, which are usually read by highly skilled actors. Audio books allow me to look forward to performing mundane mechanical tasks, like doing the laundry, because mechanical task time can be used as reading time. With the audio book there is no eye strain and I don’t have to sit still.
Of course there are advantages to reading text. If the writing is complex, it can be easier to follow, and if you are interested in the craft of fiction point-of-view, there are advantages to being able to actually see the sentences and paragraphs on the page. Also, you may prefer to experience the author’s vision undistracted. Even if you are doing mundane tasks, by nature multitasking is a fracturing of your energy, and therefore your experience may be lessened. You could, however, choose to rest your eyes, and listen to an audiobook with your eyes closed during a flight or long bus trip. Whenever I have insomnia I lie down in bed with eyeshades on and listen to an audiobook with headphones. The book replaces the racing and/or looping thoughts that often make sleep difficult. If still unable to sleep, I remind myself that lying down with closed eyes is also restorative and I focus on the audiobook with undistracted attention. The next time I pick up the book, I replay any parts that played while I was drowsy.
Depending on the position in which this card occurs, it may suggest that this is a propitious time to enrich your life with creative reading, or it may relate more generally to the interior life and its value. Never fall for the extravert’s assumption that what is happening in the outside world is more important than what is happening within.
See Pushing the Envelope — Boundary Expansion into Novelty in Personal and Evolutionary Contexts for more on the evolutionary significance of the novel and creative interiority