"At the beginning of my life was a forest," says Francis Spufford (in his charming memoir, The Child That Books Built). He means an actual forest (an 18th century park, turned wild, close to his parents' house), but also the metaphorical forest at the beginning of fiction, a forest made of stories:
"This one spread forever. Its canopy of branches covered the land, covered every form of the land, whether the ground beneath jagged or rolled. The forest went on. Up in its living roof birds flitted through greeness and bright air, but down between the trunks of the many trees there were shadows, there was dark. When you walked this forest, your feet made rustling sounds, but the noises you made yourself were not the only noises, oh no. Twigs snapped; breezes brought snatches of what might be voices. Lumpings and crashings in the undergrowth marked the passages of heavy things far off, or suddenly nearby.
"This was a populated wood. All wild creature lived here, dangerous or benign, according to their natures. And all the other travelers you had heard of were in the wood too, at this very moment: kings and knights, youngest sons and third daughters, simpletons and outlaws, a small girl whose bright hood flickered between the pine trees like a scarlet beacon...
"...and a wolf moving on a different vector to intercept her at the cottage, purposefully arrowing through thickets, leaving a track of disturbance behind him as an alpha particle does when it streaks across a cloud chamber....
"These people, these dangers, were not far away, but you would never meet them. The adventures could never intersect, although they shared the forest; although they would be joined in time by more, and still more, wayfarers, the more elaborated beings who came from the more elaborate worlds of privately read story, rather than the primitives of fairy tale. Mole from Wind in the Willows would pelt in hunted panic through a nighttime tract of the forest, whose bare boughs jutted 'like a black reef in some still southern sea.' Through twisted foliage would creep Wart, in The Sword and the Stone, past pale-eyed predators and baby dragons hissing under the stones, to his first sight of Merlyn swearing at a bucket. But each traveled separately, because it was the nature of the forest that you were alone in it. It was the place in which by definition you had no companions, and no resources except your uncertain self. It was the Wild, were relationship ceases, where connection is suspended."
There would be encounters in the forest, Spufford adds, for the solitary nature of a young hero's journey is spiritual and emotional, not literal. "Eventually the state that the whole wood represented [for you, the reader/traveler] would be embodied. One of those rustlings would become a footfall, would become a meeting, and you stepped forward to it as best you could. You could no more avoid the encounters of the wood -- all significant, all in their way tests -- than you could cross it on a neat dependable path. It existed to cause changes, and it had no pattern you could take hold of in the hope of evading change. You never went out the same as you went in."
Rebecca Solnit also examines the power of stories in childhood in her gorgeous new memoir, The Faraway Goodbye:
"Like many others who turn into writers," she tells us, "I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.
"These vanishing acts are a staple of children's books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtenances we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time."
In the pages of Enchantment Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood, the brilliant fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar notes:
"The journey as a master trope for the reading experience becomes evident in our use of the term armchair traveler, as well as in a wide range of velvety reports about the reading experience. 'Most of the time I simply enjoyed the luxurious sensation of being carried away by the words, and felt, in a very physical sense, that I was actually traveling somewhere wonderfully remote, to a place that I hardly dared glimpse on the secret last page of the book,' Alberto Manguel reports in his history of reading. The novelist Katie Roiphe describes a similar sense of kinetic exhileration while reading during recovery from a childhood bout of pneumonia: 'I broke open the books the chased the words. It was a breathless activity like running.'"
But it is deeply paradoxical, Tatar points out, "that a practice involving nothing but sitting still and staring at black marks on a white page is pitched as travel with the added benefit of powerful sensory stimulation. Reading is often said to open up alternate world superior to the one inhabited by the reader, producing an improbable rush of life.
"'From that first moment in the schoolroom at Chatres,' C.S. Lewis recalls in contemplating the role of books in his life, 'my secret imaginative life began to be so important and so distinct from my outer life that I almost have to tell two separate stories.' It was in that imaginative world that the author of The Chronicles of Narnia felt 'stabs of joy' so keen that they rivaled any feelings attending real-life experience."
There is a point for most bookish children when the choice of reading material becomes private and deeply personal; when adult attempts to guide or share the reading journey are no longer always welcome. From the bedside tales of our youngest years we progress to reading with a parent or teacher's help, and then on to reading all by ourselves. Books become our private treasures, solitary journeys into wondrous places that adults (except that magical creature called an Author) would surely not understand...or so we think, as each succesive generation discovers the vast Forest of Stories anew.
And indeed, some adults don't understand. Many children tagged as "bookworms" endure a tedious amount of teasing (or worse) from non-readers, as if a passion for print is odd, effete, perhaps even slightly unsavory. "When I was a boy,"the novelist/playwright/critic Robertson Davies once wrote, "many patronizing adults assured me that there was nothing I liked better than to 'curl up with a book.' I despised them. I have never curled."
"Each time a child opens a book," writes Lois Lowry, "he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere. It gives him choices. It gives him freedom. Those are magnificent, wonderfully unsafe things."
"Books may be the only true magic," says Alice Hoffman.
And indeed they are.
The "books and reading" imagery above: A charming, widely reprinted photograph from Transition Voice magazine; Leshy Forest illustrations by my friend and neighbor Rima Staines; four enchanting "book sculptures" by Su Blackwell, based in London; "Mole, Ratty, and Otter" by E.H. Shepard (1879-1976); "Fairy Tales" by Mary L. Gow (English, 1851-1929); two paintings of children reading by Jessica Willcox Smith (American, 1863-1935); "Five Little Pigs" by Elizabeth Shippen Green (American, 1871-1954); "Jungle Tales" by James J. Shannon (Irish-American, 1862-1923); "Three Girls Reading" by Walter Firle (German, 1859-1929); "Children Reading" by Pekka Halonen (Finnish, 1865-1933); "Young Girl Reading" by Henri Lebasque (French, 1865-1937); four paintings by Carl Larrson (Swedish, 1853-1991) of his children reading; "Little Red," one of my favorite paintings by Jackie Morris, based in Wales; and a fabulous painting by Claire Fletcher at the Black Winkle Studio in Hastings (England).
I highly recommend the book The Red Rose Girls by Alice A. Carter, about the art and braided lives of Jessica Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green and Violet Oakley. The three met in an illustration class taught by Howard Pyle and spent many years living and working together in a rose-clad house in Pennylvania.