I recently re-read Neil Gaiman’s book, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” It’s a quick and thrilling read. The narrator, an unnamed man now in his forties, comes home for a funeral and revisits the family who lived down at the end of the lane from his childhood home. While there, he recalls events from the year he was seven. The happenings included encounters with powerful and sometimes terrifying creatures.
Avid readers will identify with the protagonist when he says, “I went away in my head, into a book. That was where I went whenever real life was too hard or too inflexible.”
Without giving too many spoilers, I’ll stick with saying his situation gets to the point where even his home and family aren’t safe for him. But he still has his books. He reads about Narnia. He reads his mother’s old books about teenage girl heroines who save their country in World War II. He takes refuge with Dick Whittington and his cat. Here’s the really brilliant part. When he’s in danger and can’t get to a book, he keeps himself together by thinking about books he’s read. They’re still with him in his head. It’s even what he says. The safe place is in his head; books get him there.
This struck me because there have been a number of times in my life where no place felt secure, or when I was in a fraught situation where I couldn’t physically leave. But I could read. Whether I was visiting with literary characters who were experiencing the same things I was and thus made me feel less alone, or going on an incredible adventure completely removed from my corporeal life, I could take mental flight through books. Like the boy in Gaiman’s book, I discovered I could create a safe space in my head. I can carry my safe space with me. It’s a pretty good coping strategy. Honestly, I don’t know how non-readers survive.