It’s summer, and there is nothing like a good book to accompany breezes from the lake and the happy sounds of the screen door slamming. After years of resisting re-reading Stevenson’s Treasure Island, I picked it up the other day at the Center Harbor Bookshop in New Hampshire and stayed up until 1am to finish it. It all came back. “I take up my pen in the year of grace 17–,” writes Jim Hawkins, and before long we are plunged into the “charming anticipations of strange islands and adventures.” I remember how I was almost breathless when I read, as a 10-year-old, about Jim on the brink of departure: “I approached that island in my fancy, from every possible direction; I explored every acre of its surface; I climbed a thousand times to that tall hill they call the Spy-glass.” Even that name “Spy-glass” brought back a rush.
Politically incorrect? at times, though not nearly as offensive to our adult ears as some books from that era. What astonished me was the power of the words to pull me (both the 10-year-old girl and the grown woman) into Jim’s world. Psychologists write about cross-identification with the heroes of narratives. I don’t think I ever identified with Jim, but I wanted to be a witness to his adventures, and I cared deeply about his fate. Is there not something oppressive about the idea of identification with characters in books? Aren’t stories really about the lives of others?
The next day I read John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I was reminded of how important it was for me that Jim Hawkins became the boy who lived. And, p.s., in that book too we seem to witness and empathize rather than identify with characters.