As my eyelids grew heavier, my resolve to keep them open and moving across the page strengthened. I spent this night, like so many others, with a bedside companion whose company I did not want to lose in the oblivion of sleep.
But what didn’t strike me until I had been consumed in the throws of a passionate relationship with the characters on the page was how this connection mirrored others I had in the real world. As I reflected, I saw how much a good book and a good lover share in common. Not only do they play a comparable role in lulling us to sleep, but their similarities extend into many other spheres we might not have considered.
What exactly do we hope to gain by picking up a book or lover? One answer is fairly obvious. They satisfy the most basic human drive: pleasure. While lovers often provide an outlet to experience visceral, embodied pleasures, books stimulate equally necessary reaches of the mind. In certain cases, their roles overlap: lovers challenge and expand our imagination, or perhaps we feel a protagonist’s joy in our cells. What we’re really looking for in both books and lovers, I suppose, is a way to combine and simultaneously satiate the opposing poles of body and mind.
We experience these pleasures, however, in the context of habit. Separated from a true love or a great book, we often feel anxious or incomplete, in large part because, like all addictions, we rely on them to assuage us in the face of life’s challenges. But pleasure is insatiable; the more we indulge, the more we want. This leads to the curious fact that, with books and lovers, we can’t put them down even when we think we should.
When we find ourselves without these pleasures for a long period, contrary to what it seems in those first few agonizing days or weeks of withdrawal, we become accustomed to their absence. For example, many years ago while traveling in Turkey, I was deprived of good literature for an entire month. I certainly missed reading, but the excitement and novelty of travel seemed to provide an adequate substitute.
When I found an English bookstore in Ankara and picked up the sequel to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which I didn’t even know existed), I went crazy. This magical moment of reacquaintence reawakened my previous associations with the power of the written word. The substance of Robert Pirsig’s arguments, however ineloquent and cumbersome, reignited my neural pleasure pathways. I bought the book on the spot and spent the entire next day infatuated with my newfound companion (and Turkish coffee), indifferent to any other use of my time.
Likewise, we may experience giddiness if it has been awhile since we were last touched. Unlike domesticated animals, who are never shy when it comes to asking for or giving affection, social convention often holds humans back from expressing the need for nuzzling, snuggling, and cuddling. Going long periods without simple physical contact leads us to feel like supercharged batteries, where the mere suggestion of touch electrifies our internal circuits.
In most cases, there is a directly exponential relationship between the length of contact deficiency and the unspoken desperation that slowly erodes our standards and expectations. Few things in life – not even literature- can bring us to the point that the need for touch can, where we admit that anything is better than nothing (for my part, I refused to pick up a John Grisham paperback when I had the chance in Turkey). For the mere sake of satiating this need, we run the risk of seeing potential lovers instrumentally, which often comes at the expense of sacrificing our respect for ourselves and others.
Indeed, precisely because of their allure and the immense power they hold, books and lovers are dangerous in similar ways. Without caution, what can begin as a simple way to alleviate boredom or loneliness can turn into a crutch. We must, therefore, continually question our motivations: am I involved in this relationship because I truly want to be, or because I can’t stomach the thought of being alone?
The parallels don’t stop there: many times we treat lovers and our books in the same way, we judge them by their covers, there are trashy versions of both, etc. But for me, the telepathic power of books and lovers is the most remarkable similarity. We seldom stop to recognize how miraculous it is that words on a page create vivid images in minds separated by thousands of miles in space or centuries of time. Good writers perfect this; they crawl into our minds and compel us to feel more emotion for fictional characters than for flesh and blood people in ‘real’ life.
Experienced on the interpersonal level, thought-reading is even more remarkable, in large part because of its immediacy. No matter how many times it happens, I never stop marveling at how my lover finishes my sentences, anticipating not only my thoughts but also my emotions. During this communication, however, there is always the prospect of actually reaching out and touching our partner. Although we may feel like extending ourselves out to characters and their authors, we could never share with them what it is like when a single glance speaks more than volumes.
When this telepathy cuts through to the deepest levels, and reflects portions of ourselves that we couldn’t have seen but for these inexplicable and often sudden insights, we find a certain moral quality to a good book or lover. Through true communication, they inspire us to live better, through making us more aware not only of who we are but also who we could become. They often embody, in their pages or their cells, an understanding to which we aspire, which sometimes pops out in ways we cannot neither ignore nor explain.
And when it invariably comes time to part with a book or with a lover, voluntarily or involuntarily, a sense of loss permeates the body. Wandering in the haze of a finished book or broken relationship, we often feel like an uprooted tree longing for the soil that once nourished us so well. Even in their absence, they remain with us for months or even years, occupying a large portion of our attention and thoughts.
Although we sometimes doubt if another can replace them (or whether we should even try again) we can find solace in the knowledge that the pain of separation only exists as the result of losing something extraordinary. It is better to have become lost in love for a person or a book than to never have loved at all. Like moths drawn to flames, we remain undeterred even in the face of danger, longing for this ephemeral something that exercises an inexplicable hold on the imagination.
Would we want it any other way?