The Book Hangover

Back over Thanksgiving break, I went on a fiction binge.

The series, for what it’s worth, was the first two books in Christelle Dabos’s Mirror Visitor quartet. 500 pages a crack that I blitzed in three days, one of which was a major holiday. I had other things planned for the weekend. Some sewing projects, some writing projects, more than one blog post based on the writing workshop I attended earlier in the week…

But it had been a while since I let myself while away heedless hours with a good story, and in the face of a long, arbitrary to-do list, the only thing I wanted on my break was to do something for joy rather than obligation. So I set my plans aside, and allowed myself the liberty of complete immersion.

I don’t often binge anything, but when I do, there’s nothing more absorbing than just the right book. I mean, I can barely get through a show on Netflix, even when I love it. I’m stuck halfway through Mad Men, even though Peggy is basically my life. I’ve yet to watch the third season of Stranger Things, even though the first season I blitzed with friends over two viewings. I dropped out of Game of Thrones the episode after “The Mountain and the Viper,” and only caught up right before Season 7 was about to air. Over Christmas, I thought I would binge watch The Witcher, but lost momentum after 5 episodes. (I did finish, but it took two weeks to get back to it.)

It’s not that I think movies or TV shows aren’t interesting or worthwhile. I love film, and I would argue that a cinematic masterwork has as much artistic merit as any other medium. But my favorite way of experiencing film is with other people. I want to share the journey with them, knowing that we’re both seeing and sharing the same mental image. When I’m watching alone, episode breaks are easy exit points. It’s rare that a TV show causes me to re-calibrate my life priorities.

But a book.

It isn’t even a matter of simply losing track of time, so much as losing track of my physical self. I forget I have limbs, a corporeal body, a beating heart. When I get hooked in a book, I no longer notice hunger, or cold, or my limbs falling asleep. Hours pass. Next thing I know, it’s 5ᴀᴍ on a work night, or 4ᴘᴍ on a Saturday afternoon.

I know I’m not alone in this. When we talk about the imagination, we tend to think about the creation of mental pictures, but it’s really much more than that. Fiction encourages us to actively project ourselves into the experiences of the characters. Accordingly, our brains aren’t just painting imaginative scenery, they’re also hyper-empathizing with the characters in the story. Their concerns, ambitions, anxieties, priorities, become ours. Really compelling stories blur reality from fiction, much the way vivid dreams do.

Have you ever experienced a dream so real-seeming that it took you hours after you woke to sort out what was real from what wasn’t? I have spent an entire morning depressed over a dream in which I failed at my job before realizing that nothing of the sort had happened. I’ve dreamt that people close to me had died, woken in a state of despair, remembered the cause hours later, but still found it difficult to recover from how intense the emotions in the dream had been. The other week, I had a dream about an awkward romantic entanglement that never happened, and then spent half a day wondering how I should respond to someone next time I saw them before remembering that none of the events that had been playing in my mind were real.

I’ve more than once come away from a book (or audiobook) with a nagging sense that something important is going on, and I need to resolve it. Everything feels urgent, heightened, intense, and immediate. I can barely engage with people because nothing they tell me is as important as the crisis my fictional characters are experiencing in their story. It takes hours to come back to ground.

I emerged from my Thanksgiving book binge in a fog. My brother’s house was full of guests, and I stumbled through the party, vaguely registering friendly greetings, but mostly wishing I could return to my room and re-read sections of my story. I tried explaining myself, but even that felt half-witted.

So instead, I had to settle for an explanation more simple. I was experiencing the after-effects of having too quickly imbibed some very heady fiction. I was hungover on literature.

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