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Tuesday 12 November 2019
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Commentary

On reading and sensuality

Consider these words: “Bees browsing drowsily over meadow grass. Gold of standing corn, green of fresh hay-rows, black of rooks on stubble fields.” (Robert Macfarlane, Underland, 2019)

The images are foreign to some readers. To others, films and the Englishness of our early reading lessons render some familiarity to the picture. It taps into our imagination, an imagination that is capable of creating truths that are false. Our experience of the fresh hay-rows may not be a first-hand experience yet we long for a past that contains it, a past derived through images. We exist so to speak in many worlds at the same time without considering just how many places we may be inhabiting. ("Think about it carefully", I whisper, in that tone suggestive of a conspiracy).

There is magic in this disclosure. It is a disclosure of your own secret, the cupboard door in your own room that you can open and step into another realm, never realising that for years another world existed behind that wardrobe. You enter a parallel universe and suddenly there are familiarities that should not be, yet they are. While magic permeates, it is equally frightening sometimes, this aggressive, determined imagination, creating memories of events that never happened. But, you were there, you swear it. Someone else denies your presence but you know it so well this memory, that you keep swearing that you were indeed there. And you plunge.

The opening line of Macfarlane’s book is a single powerful sentence: “The way into the underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree.”

I am taken back to Alice disappearing down a rabbit hole. Isn’t it a tree under which she was laying her head and fell asleep? She had, just before, glanced at her sister’s book, and seeing no pictures, no conversation wondered ‘what is the use of a book…without pictures or conversation?’ (Chapter 1, Alice in Wonderland). And then, she sees the White Rabbit and follows him down the rabbit hole. She should have wondered at this furry, whiskered creature and his watch, his ability to speak, but she didn’t. In this magic world, (evidently her dream had begun by then), there are surprises but in here, nothing seems particularly abnormal to the one person, this strange, girl appearing with her rational mind into a world that defies reason. One Mad Hatter, a Cheshire cat, a walking deck of cards – they are all familiar, but in their half human state, they aren’t completely. Are they then imaginative possibilities of an alternative vision of the world?

Each world is its own "natural" to the people, the beings that inhabit it. To know this deeply is to be free to adapt to shifting boundaries. But, how far can our mental conditioning take us in this adaptation? I leave this open for discussion.

I am holding in my hand, the kindle version of Macfarlane’s Underland. Or rather, I hold the device in which is contained the digital version of the book. As I read those above-quoted opening lines I think, "This is not a book I can read digitally. I need a hard copy in hand."

For those who read, you will perhaps understand when I say that reading is a sensual activity. As I savoured the words on that page, reading them slowly for a third time, all I could think was that a part of that experience of savouring, has to do with holding the book close, turning a physical page, feeling the texture of the page under my fingertips. It is an engagement of the senses, the way in which one engages with devotion – the smells, the touch, the chanting, the action of making offerings, the pleasure of seeing, of placing.

In my world of reading, natural consists of this sensory experience. I suppose my nephews and nieces will differ given their experience of the digital world, a different type of sensory experience that divides us in some instances. But here, the boundaries shift again for me. I read a physical book and sometimes find myself reaching out to touch a word when I need to understand its full meaning. I have grown accustomed to the built-in dictionary in my kindle and to my horror I take this experience into my physical interaction with the hard copy. As much as I prefer the paper, certain habits of reading in a digital medium now enter the dance.

I contemplate these worlds, diving, surfacing, moving back and forth between the electronic medium and hard copy. As much as I like the intimacy of a physical book, there is another type of intimacy that the digital provides. Experience thus drives me to conclude that the reading experience is multi-layered and this multiverse is perfectly natural too.

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