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Last week in the UK, in the county of Devon on the south-west coast, a single name echoed on the breeze: ‘Flaviu’. The county’s attention – and, indeed, that of the wider country – was captured by the news that Flaviu the Carpathian lynx was loose somewhere among the population.

Dartmoor Zoological Park is no stranger to media attention: it is the zoo on which the popular movie We Bought a Zoo, starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, is based. Last week, the media were drawn like moths to a flame to the announcement that Flaviu the lynx had escaped his enclosure by chewing through a board, and was now at large in the area.

Despite the fact that the zoo staff were confident the animal was on nearby farmland, all kinds of sightings farther afield were reported. For example, the Plymouth Herald reported that a distraught driver had called staff at the zoo claiming to have run over the missing lynx with her car. The zoo owner said:

‘We tried to reassure her that it was very unlikely. We were still collecting sightings at this point and we were a bit alarmed that apparently someone had seen a lynx as far away as Saltash.

‘We were thinking these ‘sightings’ could get really out of hand so we started to discount the more far-fetched ones, including this one from the driver…’

Quite simply, the idea of a wild, dangerous animal loose in the county stirred imaginations. How wonderful, I thought, reading the stories. No doubt it was distressing for the motorist who thought she had killed the lynx (but presumably killed some other animal), but as a general phenomenon, this stirring of imagination is surely a positive demonstration of the magic of the mind.

Albert Einstein said, ‘Imagination… is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’ The field of psychology has long accepted that imagination – ‘the ability to form new images and sensations in the mind that are not perceived through senses’ – is an essential and healthy aspect of the human condition. Imagination fosters creativity, problem solving, cognitive processing and, essentially, empathy with others.

How, as humans, do we develop the ability to imagine? Through listening to stories at a young age and then, when we are able, reading them. The more you imagine, the better you think, feel, behave, achieve: what better reason to read and read and read!

Allow me to revisit for a moment the definition of imagination: ‘the ability to form new images and sensations in the mind that are not perceived through senses’. Thus, when we read fiction we are seeking actively to form new images and sensations in the mind that are not perceived through senses. As a writer, I always have this in mind when I am storytelling: I endeavour to really transport my readers into the story by providing all manner of sensory-rich detail that they can use to imagine vividly.

Take, for example, this description of the gypsy camp in Masquerade:

As he made his way through the gypsy camp, he watched the dark clouds drift towards the large shining moon as if intent on devouring it whole. So vibrant by day, the camp was now bleached of colour in the pale light. The fires were almost out, copper pots lay discarded and some caravans and makeshift improvised tents glowed from the lamps inside. The place smelt of burnt wood and petrol. A few figures were huddled round the dying embers, murmuring to one another, and some were passed out next to the dogs on the ground. The sound of a donkey braying somewhere was replaced with the harsh miaow of squabbling cats.

Can you picture the scene, in the pale moonlight? Can you smell the wood and petrol, hear the men murmuring and the cats miaowing?

If you can, then you are imagining; and what is most powerful about imagination is this, as evoked by the great Pablo Picasso: ‘Everything you can imagine is real’. The lynx was real to all who ‘saw’ it in Devon. My characters can be real to those who read my novels.

If you open your mind when you read a story, it is no longer a story but a real world into which you can step. Such adventures at your fingertips when you read books!

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Lipstick, powder, compact, hairbrush, breath freshener, eau de toilette… the contents of a woman’s handbag are myriad and many. Now, according to a recent study reported in the media, if the woman in question wishes to be attractive to a potential mate, her handbag arsenal needs an essential addition: a book.

Dating app My Bae released a report indicating that those users who put reading-related tags in their profiles are more likely to find a match. Tags relating to books have created more matches than those relating to music, films and TV, and the profiles of users who declared reading as an interest were viewed for longer by potential matches.

The conclusion reached by My Bae, based on the findings, is that ‘the more you read, the more attractive you are to potential partners’. A slight generalisation, perhaps, but one can see the logic to it. My Bae also found that specific books bring people together (for example, a shared love of Game of Thrones), and that the most ‘attractive’ genres in terms of number of matches are psychological thriller, travel and – you guessed it – romance.

Honestly, this report doesn’t surprise me in the least, because when a person identifies themselves as a reader, a book lover, they are saying so much about themselves. They are saying, ‘I am a reader; ergo I am…’

* intelligent

* imaginative

* thoughtful

* focused

* cultured

* interested in the world around

The latter strikes me as particularly important. We all ultimately want to be with someone who is open to the world around them, and readers continually explore relationships and psychology and the big questions of life through stories and educational books.

Much has been written in recent years on the correlation between reading and mental health, to the point that some doctors now prescribe books to improve wellbeing. So it strikes me that reading is also an attractive quality for this reason: it suggests an ability to take time out and recharge, and to look after oneself.

Interestingly, My Bae reports that 64% of women users define themselves as readers, and only 39% of men. Is this a true reflection of readership? I suspect, in fact, some men simply don’t list reading as an interest, for fear that it makes them unattractive.

If that’s the case, perhaps this news will go some way to encouraging openness over reading. The article has sparked a lengthy debate over on Reddit (more than a thousand comments), with young men in particular considering the idea. (The comment ‘Good to know chicks dig books’ says it all.)

What do you think of this report? Do you agree that a love of reading is an attractive quality in a potential partner? Are there any books you’d be put off by? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Recently, a friend asked: ‘Have you read the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon?’

I thought for a moment and then replied, ‘No, I haven’t.’

‘Oh,’ she said at once, ‘you must! You’ll love them.’

I trust my friend; she knows my reading tastes well.So I bought the first book and am thoroughly enjoying it (review to follow soon). The power of a book recommendation!

I discovered many new books to read through recommendations – through friends and family, and of course online through reading book bloggers’ reviews and scouring Goodreads and Amazon. ‘Have you read…?’ is first and foremost a joyful question to hear, because it heralds either a new fictional world to discover or, if I have read the book already, it precipitates a conversation in which a love of books may be shared.

But there is another side to the ‘Have you read…?’ question which I have been pondering. Back in the initial conversation with my friend, I paused before replying that I had not read the Outlander series. Why?

It is human nature to want to belong, to want to be a part of a collective. So to admit you haven’t read a book that so many people have is to bravely confess yourself to be – if I may borrow from Diana Gabaldon – an Outlander. I wished I had read the book. I wished I had joined the conversation on Outlander much earlier. I wished I had read all the books and joined all the conversations!

This strikes at the heart of a very real predicament for readers which is best encapsulated by musician Frank Zappa: ‘So many books, so little time.’ We read often; we read many, many books. But we cannot read anywhere near enough books to satisfy the need and desire to learn, to experience and, most significantly, to belong.

Sylvia Plath wrote in her journal:

“I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited.” 

I think she perfectly conveys the emotion in ourhaving to select only some, not all, books. But those of us who feel as she did may comfort ourselves with a vision of heaven as described by Jorge Luis Borges: ‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.’ Someday, we will have access to all the books, and have the time to read them.

In the meantime, what is required, I think, is a having faith in your reading choices and that serendipity will lead you to what you most need to read at a point in time, whether that is stumbling upon an old book in a second-hand store, or reading of one in a newspaper, or having a friend ask, ‘Have you read…?’

And remember, it is okay to stand apart sometimes as an Outlander. As the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami said, ‘If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.’

best of

Welcome, and thanks for visiting. I am giving away a paperback copy of The Other Daughter by Lauren Willig, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading this year (see my review at http://hannahfielding.net/the-other-daughter-by-lauren-willig/). Entry is open to all; I will post internationally.

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There are plenty more prizes to win in the hop. Here are the other participants. Good luck!
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There’s a new word being bandied about online and in writing magazines:

Abibliophobia.

The definition is ‘a fear of running out of reading material’. The word is being treated as something of a joke – a humorous witticism. But I think there is a lot of truth in it!

For the avid reader, nothing is better than starting a new book and realising that it is one you will enjoy. But on the flip side, nothing is worse than nearing the end of that book and knowing you will have to let go of the story world and return to reality. For me, there’s a sort of grieving that takes place after I finish a good book. The glow of having enjoyed it stays with me, but there’s a tinge of regret that the experience is over, and never again will I read that wonderful book for the first time and discover afresh.

When you really love to read, the only thing that can get you through the emotional journey of reading, I think, is to always have the next book ready. So even as you’re enjoying your book, you go to the library and find another that interests you, or you browse in a bookstore for a novel that captures your imagination. Then the reading becomes even better, because not only are you enjoying the book you are reading now, but you are simultaneously looking forward to reading the next book.

But is just one book lined up to read next enough? For me, no! I read quickly: something in the region of a book a week; sometimes more. So that moment of finishing a novel and feeling bereft comes often. To assuage concern, I like to have a good pile of books on the ‘to read’ pile. Five at least. More is a comfort. And when I travel, those books have to be packed up and come with me – even if I doubt I will have the time to get through them. They are my safety net; they are too important to leave behind.

I was fascinated to watch a segment on the BBC’s One Show recently that featured a couple, Bill and Laurel Cooper, who spent 36 years sailing around the world together after their children had left home. Laurel, a keen reader, insisted that the boat be fitted out with a library for her books. She said, ‘I couldn’t do without my books.’ The books weighed a lot and affected how low down in the water the craft sat – but she was adamant she must have them. I would be entirely the same, and would probably have to research means to get new reading material on the course of the adventure as well!

(The episode is available to watch for the next few weeks at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04xm4pf– if you can take a look, I really recommend it. Their story is really inspiring. You can also read about them here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2106969/Bill-Laurel-Cooper-The-adventures-couple-spent-36-years-travelling-world.html.)

What do you think? Are you an abibliophobe? Is that a problem for you, or a sheer delight? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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