A friend recently turned me on to a study called, Your Brain On Fiction. He was making a case for the power of descriptive sensory writing – the experiential phenomenon of reading really fucking good fiction. Through brain mapping they were able to show your brain does not know the difference between experiencing something in real life or when immersed in a book.
We “have long known that the “classical” language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets written words.” But this study shows that when reading something highly descriptive other areas of your brain engage, the ones responsible for smell, texture, taste, movement, and even emotional response. So, not only are we experiencing our senses as we might in real life, the relationship developed between characters and ourselves can also lead to an evolution in how we relate to people. This explains how a book can literally change your life. It alters our perception of the world.
I am curious then, if one were to read a book in which the sense of place is so visceral and accurate, would we then in affect, live as if we had been there? Can you in some degree, experience a place, travel to it even, by picking up a really good book? This smattering of place-centric books below, use their world as such a strong proponent of the prose it nearly becomes a character in and of itself. Can we immerse ourselves in a world and take on the experience, evolve like we have actually been there?
Any book that is banned for twenty-seven years in the United States piques my interest. Particularly if it said cited to have “notorious and explicit sexuality.” Tropic Of Cancer completely redefines our expectations of how a writer might handle time, and it’s a mind-bending joy. Set in Paris, it comes so vividly to life in these pages that you find yourself anchored in the book not because of chronology but because you come to trust the place completely.
This book made me want to become a writer. I’d just moved to Los Angeles when I read it. And I felt like Janet Fitch had climbed inside my rib cage and lived the city with me. She casts LA as this gorgeous and haunted backdrop for her novel to unravel in. Even years later I read these pages and find myself immediately transported back to an afternoon in which the Santa Anas are just about to set you loose.
This Book won the Pulitzer and then was soon after adapted into an HBO mini series, getting all sorts of love along the way. Set in a depressed New England mill town, the way this cast of characters relates and reverberates off one another is undeniably amplified and put into a particular context because of the place of this book. They cannot be separated. It is essential to the narrative.
The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty is set in Morgana, Mississippi. Although a fictional place there is not one blade of grass or dusty street that feels pulled from thin air. You feel the heart of this town. There are fewer collections that will envelope your senses and give you such a strong place as these do. The stories will knock the wind right out of your chest.
Set in India in 1975, in an unnamed city by the sea, at a time of such intense political temperature certain portions hard to read. “Rarely has a book so perfectly captured a time and place in the history of our world.” Having recently reached the end of this masterpiece, I truly felt as if I’d come back from a life altering experience.