What is it about reading that envelops us? When you get caught up in a good book, the world around you melts away and you are transported to another place. In the case of science fiction, that other place could be another planet in another galaxy on the other side of the universe. Yet, regardless of how much I can personally say that a story transports me elsewhere, I still have a series of uncanny recollections that tie certain books to reality; not just where I was when I was reading those books, but also what was going on in my life at the time I read them.
For example, when I was reading J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit as a preteen, I was right there with Bilbo Baggins on his journey through Middle Earth. But today when I think about The Hobbit, I am transported not back to the Shire, nor to Smaug's cavernous, treasure-filled mountain, but instead I am back in my sixth grade English class where our wonderful teacher would read some of the passages from the book out loud, using unique theatrical voices for the different characters. I think about how she helped shape and influence my love of reading. Sure, the fiction is great, but the reality is sweeter.
There was also a summer not too long afterward when my friend named Freddy and I rode our bikes to the mall. This was no small feat for my small feet; the mall was about seven miles away. I remembered loving The Hobbit so much that I picked up the entire box set of The Lord of Rings. Freddy, having already read the trilogy, picked up Tolkien's The Silmarillion because he couldn't get enough of Middle Earth. I remember that we had an argument at the mall—the reasons for this long gone—but I do recall that we silently rode back to my house and read our respective literary treasures in silence, almost spitefully. What silly nerds we were.
I wasn't destined for much fantasy reading, though. Thanks to shows like Star Trek and films like Star Wars, my reading tastes began to veer toward science fiction. Ringworld by Larry Niven is the book I consider to be my first science-fiction book. Looking for more of that same sense of wonder, I naturally turned to books by the same author. (Reading diversity was not a goal of my younger self.) I have a distinct recollection of browsing and purchasing Niven's The Integral Trees in the same mall bookstore where Freddy and I fought over who knows what.
I was in my teens when I went through a bad breakup with a girlfriend. (Are there any other kind of teenage breakups?) I recall reading one of Frederik Pohl's Gateway books, a series about mysterious alien technology left behind by aliens. The details are fuzzy about what happens in the story, but there was a situation where two lovers were separated forever by the time dilation effects of space travel. I remember being touched by that and thinking about my newly lost love.
I remember reading most of Stephen King's horror book It before a college physics class because I would arrive extra early to campus to avoid rush-hour traffic and that was how I filled the time. I read Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town during a Hampton Beach vacation. Traveling accounted for a lot of my reading, actually. I associate several books, like Nancy Kress' Beggars and Choosers (the sequel to Beggars in Spain) and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand while on business trips, the purposes of which I've forgotten. I recall reading a sizable chunk of John Joseph Adams' excellent zombie anthology The Living Dead on a plane ride home to see my family. What is it about these books that make me associate them with my surroundings while I was reading them?
Have you ever been in a house when a new roof was being installed? It's noisy as heck and not at all conducive to reading. Yet that surrounding noise did not detract one bit from the reading experience I had with Marion Zimmer Bradley's Arthurian book, Mists of Avalon. Over 1000 pages long and it went by like nothing amid an uncoordinated cavalcade of hammering from above. The book was totally engrossing, yet I was still tied to my surrounding environment.
There are other memories as well: Staying up all night furiously turning pages to read the Science Fiction Book Club edition of David Gerrold's homage to Heinlein Juveniles, the Dingilliad series (including Bouncing Off the Moon); reading and loving the depth and detail of Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons; Reading Asimov's novella Bicentennial Man in one memorable, distraction-free reading session; and reacquiring my love of short stories via Volume One of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, edited by Ben Bova.
I don't know what causes these associations between what I read and where/when I read them. But I do know that by associating them with certain times in my life, the books become part of my life, which is an experience that goes far beyond the simple "entertainment factor" promise of a book. I'm glad I read those books. But I'm even more pleased that I have those memories.
What are some of yours?