“Don’t you get confused?”

I read a lot, and usually have multiple books on the go at a time, and invariably get asked “Doesn’t that get confusing?” People think I’ll get plots and characters mixed up – which can happen on occasion if books are too similar – but usually the different books vary enough I can easily separate them. For example, at the moment I’m reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami; Open City by Teju Cole; and Canadian History for Dummies, by Will Ferguson. Not easy to mix up plot points.

However the answer to “Don’t you get confused?” is actually “Yes, often, in beautiful ways.” In the past few days I read Rob Delaney’s memoir, and Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih. So when I put down Open City to get in the shower this morning I had a strange moment of not knowing where or who I was. I’m not a Nigerian-American doctor exploring New York City. I’m not a recovering-alcoholic comedian. I’m not a highly educated Sudanese bureaucrat trying to unravel the story of a man’s life. Yet at different points this week I have been all these things.

George R. R. Martin wrote (through one of his characters) that “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies” and I have certainly lived pieces of more than a thousand. Some I remember more clearly than many of my own memories, others faded like past lives that surface only occasionally. They have all informed how I live and experience the world. They have given me a richer internal life, and a breadth of experience that could not possibly be managed in one lifetime.

In a glorious talk defending libraries from the ever-enclosing budget cut, Neil Gaiman said fiction builds empathy. This is also why it’s vital to read as wide a variety of books as possible. Books about people who are as different from us as imaginable. Fantasy worlds that teach us about our own lives, science fiction that informs us about humanity, speculative fiction that pushes current trends to their most extreme conclusions.

We only get one life to live but luckily we have hundreds of thousands of lives to experience thanks to people who share their lives, experiences, imagination and ideas.

On rare occasion someone tells me they’d rather go out and experience life for themselves than read a book. I’m all for “real life” experiences, I wouldn’t trade my travels and life and friendships for more books (well… it might depend on the book and the friend) but it’s not an “either/or” to me.

I have travelled alone through Tanzania, but it is Tayeb Salih (among others) who informed me about what it is to live through and after colonization. I held a Neanderthal stone axe in my hands, but Jean Auel who made me think about what it could have been like to be on evolution’s losing team.

I read because one life isn’t enough and because I want to experience as much as possible. So if you interrupt me reading and I look confused, just give me a minute to figure out where and who I am.

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