There’s a lot to digest before the story even starts. There are biographical notes on the author, an Introduction that seeks to contextualise the story within the times it was written, a couple of pages listing Further Readings for those readers with a mind to explore further, and something titled ‘Note on the Text’, which I ignore because I’ve now lost interest in even scanning the preliminaries.
These are reminders that a story always sits within a larger story. Sometimes, knowing the context adds to the reading experience, but sometimes I want to read the story first, experience it as it is, and then discover the context. Today, I opt for the latter because I think I already know enough.
“Finally”, I think to myself, “I will turn the page and start this story” … only to turn the page to find a Table of Contents and that the book is divided into two ‘books’, and then turning another page to find, further, that the first book has its own cover leaf.
Time has passed before I reach the first sentence.
The second sentence captures my attention: “With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter.”
It could have been written for our time.
I opted for H G Wells’ War of The Worlds because I thought I’d try re-reading something I’d read in my younger years. Perhaps it would be interesting to compare past and present experiences.
I thought it had been one of those mandatory readings in high school. However, the words are not feeling at all familiar. Perhaps I’m mixing up memories of a TV re-run of the 1953 movie of the same name but which was set in California instead of England. I know the movie made a strong impression; I can still recall many scenes, particularly the rather dramatic ending where the intergalactic invaders all die from exposure to our germs rather than anything the hero tried to achieve. It was a rare anti-hero ending in the old movies I grew up watching on Saturday afternoons.
Nevertheless, I’m enjoying the fact that this is quite different to Parisian Lives, the preceding read. Parisian Lives was published in 2020, over 100 years after The War of the Worlds, originally published in 1898! The writing styles are vastly different.
I turn the page to Chapter 9, “The Fighting Begins”.
It’s getting quite unsuitable for pre-slumber reading and I go no further. Instead, this book must wait until I can devote a day or two during day-light hours, perhaps during a cold and wet weekend when I cannot toil in the garden.
But before I set it aside, a section of Chapter 8 bellows its message: “The most extraordinary thing to my mind, of all the strange and wonderful things that happened upon that Friday, was the dovetailing of the commonplace habits of our social order with the first beginnings of the series of events that was to topple that social order headlong.”
Isn’t that what everyone was experiencing when lockdowns started spreading so quickly around the world?
I restart the book in the waiting room of a Sydney-based eye clinic. Not my eyes. The form I just signed claims I’m the carer.
The chairs are slightly separated, not 1.5 metres, but at least there’s elbow room. Everyone has a mask – currently mandatory in hospital settings. Big bottles of hand sanitiser sit on the desk. There’s the usual cheap abstract art on the walls and a bizarre water feature in one corner. The television is on; they are always on in waiting rooms, tuned either to a tacky news channel or a heavily sponsored unreal reality format.
I pull the book out of my bag. It’s starting to get a bit battered. Books need travelling cases, like phones and tablets.
The next three chapters are set at night, and I read them under the glare of overhead fluorescents, stopping periodically to answer my phone. (We are in Sydney during an uptick in pandemic cases, and my fellow traveller is ringing to say the car battery is flat). These are the chapters when the enormity of the situation starts to dawn on our narrator. The first line of the next chapter marks the sunrise.
I set the book aside again. I decide I prefer immersive reading, but cannot deny there is something intriguing in the sensory impact of switching so quickly between different worlds.
I thought I might make it my New Year’s Day reading but then decided not to tempt fate.
Day 2 of 2021 and our town is hit by a super cell weather event. Twenty minutes of intense rain that goes beyond the traditional 1-in-100 year event. We seem to have these every few years now. My home copes well, but the power is out. Too muggy to do anything else but read by the muted afternoon light.
I’m at that point in a good story where the protagonist is finding the going a bit rough. The Martians are getting the upper hand and the people of London are evacuating in the most unruly manner. The narrator is trapped in a half buried house right next to a Martian camp. The man he is trapped with is a little crazy.
My sun starts to set but electricity has not been restored. Battery power is at 67%. I wouldn’t normally worry, but now I wonder if it will see me through the night. My phone is everything. Then I discover I have no signal and no internet. A mild panic starts to percolate.
Is it just me or does what we read alter our perspective on what’s happening around us?
Day 3 of 2021 … so close to the last page … decide to get it finished.
How many times has this book been adapted for the screen? I can see why it’s so popular. The story captures so many different insights into the human response to disruption and is so easily transferable to a contemporary setting. While I read about a fictional invasion from Mars that occurs before we mastered flight, I see numerous parallels with the human response to our current plight.
Would the story have felt so freaky if I’d read it before the pandemic started?
Thinking on these things this morning, Day 4 of 2021, I am reminded of the idea of being purposeful in deciding what and when to read, reinforcing my opinion held for some time now that we must select with an engaged mind. Then, just as important but perhaps more critical, we must read with an aware mind.
I’m finding that writing up the story of my experience with a book while reading it greatly enhances awareness.
What we read will influence us. Perhaps there is no such thing as escapism? At least not where story is involved.