When he sees me he waves an arm, flicks a wrist, and utters strange phrases. He must be at least twelve years old. His thin-rimmed glasses constantly threaten to slide off his nose and his sandy brown hair defies a comb. The boy is a devoted fan of Harry Potter, and for reasons I do not know, he casts a curse my direction when our paths cross. As he grows up, his love for the wizarding world might cool. For now, it burns white-hot.
I have been asked if reading literature is just an escape attempt from the real world into (sometimes childish) fantasies. Once or twice I’ve reacted defensively, other times, passively, and rarely persuasively. My perspective on the problem changed when I read C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism.
Lewis helps literature-lovers by distinguishing Escape from Escapism. All reading is an escape: “it involves a temporary transference of the mind from our actual surroundings to things merely imagined or conceived. This happens when we read history or science no less than when we read fictions” (p. 68). Understood this way, to escape is neither good nor bad. In fact, it underlies many of our hobbies.
Escapism, on the other hand, involves “escaping too often, or for too long, or into the wrong things, or using escape as a substitute for action” (p. 69). We are guilty of escapism when our reading penetrates so far into our lives that we cannot function properly. I have seen someone take a fictional romance and try to re-create its whispers and wonders into a real relationship. I fall to escapism when, instead of setting my behind behind a desk to write, I grab a trilogy from my bookshelf to read. Money must be earned and food must be cooked and loved ones must be held. Any reading- or any hobby- that is put before these things is escapism.
So, what about the young Harry Potter fan? Has he moved from escape into escapism? After all, he owns a wand and a robe and he casts spells at passersby.
Maybe Paul the Apostle can help here: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”
We should hope that one day the robe will be hung in a closet, the wand placed in a drawer, and the spells no longer cast. But we should also hope that the boy’s love of reading will be carried into adulthood, for there is nothing childish nor escapist about enjoying a good story.