Reading is Believing

Where do stories live, exactly?

There is a perfectly rational answer to that question, that they’re products of human imagination, recorded/remembered for posterity in the spoken/written word, on film, in illustrations, etc. They can be left unfinished, errors can be made, or records and memories can be incomplete or destroyed and that is that.

I’m more interested in this question from an emotional standpoint, though, not a rational or logical one.

As I’ve brought up in a recent post already, I discovered that my copy of Star Wars: Master & Apprentice contains an uncommon yet perfectly normal problem: nearly 50 pages are just missing, and in their place are 47 pages from an entirely different book by a different author.

There’s nothing all that wrong here, beyond an error in the printing process. I notified the publisher and sometime in the near future I will gratefully receive a new copy. Nevertheless, this incident had a small emotional impact on me that I cannot help but wax philosophical about.

I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but sometimes when I’m reading—especially if I’m really enjoying the book—I will pause, close the book, and just look at it and consider it. When I first buy a new book, it’s just an object to me. Its contents are all but a mystery until I start reading it, so it’s nothing but paper and potential; a promise of something undiscovered, but as yet unknown so not something I’m truly connected with.

Once I have engaged with the story, however, the book as an object takes on a totemic quality to me. It’s not just a medium through which the story is told, but becomes physically representative of the story itself and my experience with it. Realizing that my copy of this book was incomplete, unable to convey the whole story to me, compromised these feelings for me in an uncanny way, making me surprisingly self-conscious.

Fortunately, this is a situation where the missing content is easily attainable. My feelings toward an individual paperback may be shaken, but I don’t have to forever wonder how Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s adventure will be resolved.

It was when I read If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino a couple of years ago that I first consciously considered where stories “live.” With chapters alternating between a second-person narration of the “reader’s” experiences and the content of the books he’s reading, the novel treats us to a number of starting chapters to novels that exist nowhere else (to my knowledge) and have no continuation beyond what we are presented with. We read these beginnings, learning of their respective settings, characters, and brewing conflicts with no hope of ever seeing them through. They just don’t exist.

Of course, even what we do get to read doesn’t actually exist either. It is all fiction, a fantasy. Yet I cannot shake this uncanny realization that, while I can certainly tell the difference between fantasy and reality, there is a part of me that believes what I am reading. Willing suspension of disbelief is a well-known concept, but I hadn’t really considered it as applying to all fiction.

Never mind my willingness to believe in laser swords, starfighters, or a mystical Force for the duration of the book in question, but even when I read the most grounded of fiction I am unconsciously entering an emotional state where part of me decides to believe that what I am reading has happened, somehow, somewhere. Because it is not delusion, it is a belief in the unreal we can take comfort in. It didn’t happen, yet it did, since we had an emotional experience with it.

A book with an error in it is just that, easily remedied most of the time, but also something that can discomfort that belief in a story. It reminded me too consciously that on an objective level this is just a faulty product, containing incomplete content imagined and put together for my consumption. It’s an ultimately fleeting feeling, as it always exists in tandem with the more compelling sentimental feelings, but this benign incident was nevertheless so striking to me that I kept thinking about it, enough to write all of this out.

So with all that being said, where do stories live? Well, in our hearts and minds, when we let them. Even those with a beginning and no ending, or an ending with no beginning, are afforded a small place in our imaginations. They are just ideas written down, but they are also windows into another world. These worlds exist thanks to a wonderful willingness to believe, which comes to us so easily.

Thank you for reading.


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