The Art of Bilocation

At Winter Quarters on Antarctica’s Ross Island in 1911 you don’t always want one of the so-called great books to read before bed. Of course you’ll read whatever is handy (what else is there to do?), but what you really want, says Apsley Cherry-Garrard in The Worst Journey in the World, is a book that will

take you into the frivolous fripperies of modern social life which you may not know and may never wish to know, but which it is so often pleasant to read about, and never so much so as when its charms are so remote.

The best sort of reading (which may occur even when what you’re reading isn’t the best sort of book) typically induces a sense of bilocation. My son, age nine, tried to explain this to me the other day. “When I’m reading a book,” he said, “the world around me disappears and it’s like I’m really in the story in my imagination, even more than when I’m watching TV.”

We may enjoy a keener pleasure when the contrast between book and life is most pronounced. This, I’m sure, is part of what “Cherry” is getting at. We want to live two lives at once, and if those lives share too much in the way of outward circumstance, the bilocation fails. So, for example, I don’t imagine I would have enjoyed Frans Bengtsson’s The Long Ships quite so much, or in the same way, if I had been a professional pillager myself.

Likewise, I had put off reading The Worst Journey in the World until summer because I knew the contrast between my own gross comfort and the gross discomfort of Cherry and co. would add to the experience. Not that I find satisfaction in their sufferings, but the transport to Antarctica makes for rather effective mental air conditioning.

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