[Essay] On Magical Books

Magical books in stories are enticing and incredible objects. In this essay, Leticia looks at the idea of the magical books and discovers that the truth is as incredible as the fiction.
Photo from https://unsplash.com/@thkelley

In his Ditmar-finals-listed novel Bound, Australian author Alan Baxter‘s protagonist Alex Caine is taken over by a magical book. His Alex Caine series has just been released in hardcopy, and I’ve started re-reading Bound in anticipation of getting into the subsequent two novels. Well, I was until I got inspired to write myself, which is why you and I are both here right now.

In Bound and the situation with Caine, Baxter contends, through the literary device of the difficult situation in which his protagonist finds himself, that books not only contain magic but are themselves magical. It’s an argument that books can contain secrets, and that, if one is well enough aligned with what they have to say, books can impact wisdom and ideas, and that the very act of consuming this knowledge can cause profound and immediate change in someone. In Baxter’s world of magesign and Kin, those with the power to read magical books are able to comprehend things about the world in a deeper, more meaningful and highly connected way, which gives them extraordinary power. Perhaps I read more into it than I ought to, but it is its own way of articulating the idea that one’s place in the world can be irreparably – perhaps a better word might be irrevokably – changed, simply by consuming words written by someone else.

The idea of magical books is not new. We find it as far back as the fifteenth century, a time when the Catholic Church was convinced that the printing press was a tool of the devil.[1] Delving into northern European legend shows us that books have, in some way, always been considered transformative, magical things. You can dive into that rabbit hole here.

At face value at this time of our Western lives (in 2016), the notion of the magical book is simply a literary and fantastical device. We have seen this idea of books coming alive in fiction since… well, since forever.  We come to know them as children. Kids’ stories are full of the transformative nature of magic, as are legends of all types of civilisations through time. We have seen books like these in everything from Harry Potter to Bedknobs & Broomsticks.

The idea that books transform people, cause the acquisition of deep knowledge, and reveal worlds to people is a deeper idea than perhaps it seems simply by examining fiction. Beyond the brilliant ideas of magical books for children and legends designed for sociomoral certitude; and beyond the notions that every imaginative reader has always entertained (imagine! Finding a Book of Magic that can teach you magic and magical things!), the notion that books are agents of change, desirable and otherwise, is given light in many areas of life.

The most notable of these is of course in sociopolitical commentary, and even in politics itself. The idea is fervently carried by people with all kinds of intentions. Books are upheld as beacons of positive change by those invested in personal development, education, and human evolution. Books are similarly derided as tools of moral decrepitude by those invested in censorship, control, and various flavours of religious fervour.

The idea of books being magical has also been upheld by those of us in neither camp; most notably by people like you: People who invest time in reading, often for reading’s sake. As a reader you already know that whole worlds are there for your pleasantly selfish grasping. You allow the masturbatory mental frolick of a good book to fill you with glee, and will happily follow along wherever it takes you. You are open to the knowledge that other people can give you, and understand how one book can dramatically change how you see the world around you. And you understand how books change as you change, an understanding you come to simply by the tiny act of re-reading a favoured work at different times in your life.

For many avid readers, the magical nature of books is something that is unquestionably true. Once you have followed Paul Coelho on his pilgrimage, been part of the rain of odd creatures from the sky alongside Haruki Murakami, ridden in the ear of a giant with Roald Dahl, or even colluded, however hesitantly, in the (often disgusting) hilarious situations of Tucker Max, you will not deny that books can profoundly change you.

Writers, too, acknowledge that books are magic; they are magical in the writing, magical in the publishing and reception, magical in the experience. Just one example of this is in Ann Whitford Paul’s essay The Magic of Books, which I encourage you to go and read.

And yet, this change is something we laugh about, in the lighthearted banter we toss between our enlightened selves as though it were a fun game of tennis. Few people really appreciate how profound this change truly can be.

Did you know that reading forges new neural pathways? According to one study, because readers mentally simulate every new situation that they encounter in a narrative, meshing it into their own experiences, the brain itself actually changes. In this 2011 article in The Guardian, the antidote to western culture’s drop in empathy is proposed to be the activity of reading… because reading causes a deeper insight into the inner lives of people. As the author notes:

This transformation only takes place when we lose ourselves in a book, abandoning the emotional and mental chatter of the real world. That’s why studies have found this kind of deep reading makes us more empathetic, or as Nicholas Carr puts it in his essay, The Dreams of Readers, “more alert to the inner lives of others”. (Read the full article here.)

Martha Burns in the following year (2012) wrote that reading is akin to the ‘real-time collaborative effort of a symphony orchestra’, because of the coordinated way in which the brain handles the activity of reading. And, further, that this is why strong readers get stronger: The brain learns to help you to help it get stronger at this kind of coordination. In a fascinating discussion about the activity of reading, Burns demonstrates that this is also why those who find it difficult to read struggle with it until that coordination is under control. The only way to get better at this kind of coordination – like all kinds of physical coordination – is to practice.

This kind of coordination itself does all kinds of magical things: It improves empathy, something that appears to have become common knowledge by now; but it also helps people to process visual information. Perhaps more amazingly, it dramatically improves the ability for people to process speech information, which means that great readers are also better listeners than those who don’t read.

For those who are talented at reading, and talented at meditation, the malleability of the brain is not anything unusual. In fact, those people may find themselves capable of making all sorts of incredible changes within their physical lives simply by thinking about them. While not so long ago this was considered to be bogus, hippie-dippie fluff, the idea that thinking and visualisation does create noticeable physical change is addressed by a number of modern books about what we now refer to as neuroplasticity. Sandra & Matthew Blakeslee in their title The Body Has a Mind of Its Own succinctly demonstrate this in chapter four, aptly subtitled, ‘When thinking is as good as doing’. Here’s an excerpt: [2]

After one week, motor imagery practice led to nearly the same level of body map reorganization as physical practice. As far as your motor cortex is concerned, executed and imagined movements are almost identical … When you mentally rehearse a movement, all but one of the brain regions that control your movements become active in the absence of movement … While many types of mental practice are undoubtedly helpful, motor imagery is the only technique that alters your body maps in the same way physical practice does.’

As the Blakeslees go on to demonstrate, you don’t need to do as much physical practice if you combine it with visual practice.

Visualisation practice is a kind of simulation that we can do inside our own little minds, not something for which we require any technology. This means therefore, that if, by reading, you are experiencing other situations by virtue of simulation, and if by simulation and visualisation you are actually training yourself to do things differently, then perhaps books truly are magical things.

This idea of the magical nature of books is important when we consider issues that can dramatically change the direction of whole societies, like censorship and the banning of books.

While we might like to think that the banning of books is limited to the strictures of communist and fascist nations of the past, it would be fanciful and ignorant to indulge such a thought. In fact, in this terrifyingly titled clickbait from 2010, Why we want parents to try to ban books the author argues that fact that parents try to ban books shows that the books are doing their jobs: Affecting people strongly enough to transform them. The author goes on to worry that parents don’t lodge complaints like they used to, because of either reduced reading or reduced impact, hence the terrifying title.

In fact, it’s not until we start to dig below the surface of censorship to try and understand why books are banned that we realise the truth of the magical power of books. Popular articles like this one list things like sexual explicitness, homosexuality, language that offends, violence, drugs (I’m surprise rock’n’roll isn’t on the list too, or chocolate, or good food, or philosophical discussions between literate friends…) as being ‘reasons’ why books are banned. On the surface of this difficulty, we wouldn’t be out of place by arguing that the push to ban (or, as our American friends euphemistically say, ‘challenge’) books is simply one way of controlling society’s point of view.

This itself is unhelpful because it tells us that books are dangerous, but not why. Sure, the decline of morals is an easy pitch, but it’s one that we expect to see. That alone makes it unlikely to be the real reason.

The truth of it is not that books are going to show people different points of view (which they do); it is not that they highlight other ways that people can live (which they do); and it is not because they give us insights into different points of view (which they do); it is because in doing so they have the potential to change people, and in so doing to transform a social unit larger than one person. And, truly, this change can be dramatic sometimes. I have had more than one experience of reading that shifted my perspectives so much that for half a day I was unable to speak, and came out of my personal ruminations with a greater appreciation for elements of life to which I had previously been ignorant.

This is the magical power of the book. For societies in which the control of perspectives is critical to the functioning of those societies — and we can see this even in the consistent propaganda that washes past us every day about other cultures, about things that are apparently bad for us, about all of the apparent violence, horror, and awfulness of the world — controlling the ways in which people think is A1 on the list. Books have the ability to undermine such population control, simply because they can inspire a spark of significant transformation. In allowing a person to experience other situations by proxy, the magic does its work. The impact is at an energetic and empathetic level: It causes people suddenly to change their minds; it persuades, demonstrates, illustrates, and enhances or shifts the feelings that people have about the state of their worlds.

And I say ‘their worlds’ because it is more than just a political change. Books can change the way that you relate to people, the way you think about your life, ethics, religion, and culture. They can open doors to new topics, issues, and arguments you might never encounter otherwise.

The reason why this is terrifying from a population control perspective is that this action is gigantic. And it is hidden. It’s an extremely personal experience, one that is difficult to articulate and challenging to share. Our most personal transformations are rarely ones that we discuss, and readers know this with greater sensitivity than most. You can sit in one place and appear perfectly unchanged from the front cover to the back, even though your entire world might have moved to another place, and the way you see yourself and your relationship with the world is no longer what it was.

This deeply personal relationship we have with authors and their ideas may be one of those reasons why books do have their own personalities and lives. For Alex Caine, magical books swirl with magesign, clearly magical to those who can see it. As ridiculous as it sounds, this magic is not unfamiliar to readers either.

Those of you who maintain personal hardcopy libraries know this about books. You know that books call to you in inexplicable ways. They communicate with you from the shelves, draw you to them. In a library that is your own, your books are family, each one a portal to another world. Nestled together unassumingly on a library shelf, they are passive containers of often explosive ideas, wild fantasies, and incredible images. But if they don’t like sitting next to each other, they tell you so. When books don’t like their present locations, they call to you, make you realise that something isn’t quite right, and will entice you to them until you move them. I’m not the first reader to experience this wail of discomfort from my personal library:

I believe it then to be quite simply true that books have their own very personal feeling about their place on the shelves. They like to be close to suitable companions, and I remember once on coming into my library that I was persistently disturbed by my ‘Jane Eyre’. Going up to it, wondering what was the matter with it, restless because of it, I only after a morning’s uneasiness discovered that it had been placed next to my Jane Austens, and anyone who remembers how sharply Charlotte criticised Jane will understand why this would never do. ~ Hugh Walpole. [3]

This is a magic that none of us understand, that none of us truly wish to understand. It is also one that you can play with. Standing in bookshops, I play a game with the books in front of me. I ask them, which of you do I need to read? And then follow my instinct until I feel like I know where to stop. The books to which I feel most deeply connected are books that I’ve found in this way: They’ve been read in amazement, treasured, and loved.

This is why magical books brought to life by fantasy authors like Alan Baxter take hold of my imagination, make me wish that they were real things, that I could see their magic. But the truth is they are real things, and even if I can’t see their magic, it doesn’t mean that the magic isn’t real. It just means that I take the magic for granted.



[1] Davies, Owen. 2009. Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. Oxford University Press: New York. Page 44.

[2] Blakeslee, Sandra and Blakeslee Matthew. 2008. The Body Has a Mind of Its Own. Random House: New York. Page 60.

[3] Rugg, Julie and Murphy, Lynda. 2006. A Book Addict’s Treasury. 2006. Frances Lincoln: London.

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