I had to take the school bus to school. Every weekday I’d get up, eat, get dressed and go out to the bus stop, which was just a fancy name for a particular street corner. The area around the corner was a small hill and there was no side walk, so in the winter we’d often struggle to stay on the slick, snow covered slope because when you’re little and your parent tells you never to play on the road, you never play on the road, even if the road is safer than the icy patch of grass above it. The older kids didn’t have that problem. They stood on the level. They were a bad influence. But that’s beside the point. The point comes when I was an older kid myself, had started reading for fun and would spend my forty minutes on the bus by cracking open a library book and entering another world. This is the point: absorbing books are often labelled escapist fiction even when they’re not.
Any book can be an escape as long as it’s better than your present reality. Escape means fleeing. If my childhood was horrible I would have chosen to flee to almost any other world rather than face reality. That happens. However, it also tends to negate the draw—the suction—of amazing literary worlds. Sitting on my school bus, I wasn’t escaping my life. My life was good. I wanted to read, and then to keep reading even when the bus arrived at school, not because I wanted to get away from what was awaiting me but because the world within the words was too good to leave. Whether it was Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (still my favourite Conrad novel) or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (borrowed from a friend, devoured and dutifully returned), reading was a positive experience rather than the avoidance of a negative one. The books were vacuums cleaners for my mind. Turn on by opening, turn page and hold on. When the bus stops, turn off by closing covers and go to class. At school, I was neither bored nor bullied. On the bus on the way home, I leaned against the bus wall and opened the book again.
Maybe there’s a general suspicion of introverts, a category into which readers are often lumped wholesale, because there’s a general suspicion of spending time alone, imagination and privacy. All that goes on behind closed doors must be nefarious. That’s the extreme view. A less fanatical one is that people who read fiction are impractical but harmless. They spend their time in make-believe. Sprouting from that is the belief that becoming absorbed in a fiction is a symptom of a sick reality from which one wishes to escape. Denying such a situation is difficult because, after all, you may be fleeing a reality so bad you don’t even know it’s bad. Only others, being educated in these things, know better for you. I admit I’m being dramatic, because nothing like that has ever happened to me, but forgive me for I’m defending good books! Having your nose stuck in one doesn’t mean real life is pushing the back of your head into it. Sometimes the book is just so good that it’s pulling you inside by the nostrils.
It’s similar to immigration. When you’re living in a war torn country led by a dictator, you want to escape. Anywhere better than your present country will do. You become a refugee. When you’re living in Germany and decide to move to the Netherlands, your goal isn’t to escape. You don’t say, “I’m fleeing from Berlin to Rotterdam.” You say, “I’m moving.” You’re an immigrant, not a refugee. You still may be searching for a better place, but you’re motivated by the hope that you’ll smell more tulips (positive) rather than by a fear of death (negative). And, as the refugee example suggests, escapism isn’t about a destination anyway. Immigration is about destinations. It therefore makes little sense to label one book escapist and another not. All books can be escaped into. It’s the person who escapes into them who is the escapist, which is a word that’s much more useful as a noun than an adjective.
Now, if you’ll excuse, I’ve a made-up world to immigrate to.