Enchanted Hunters

To Travel the World Without Moving an Inch

Title: Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Sto­ries in Child­hood

(Ama­zon, Goodreads)

Author: Maria Tatar

(Ama­zon, Goodreads, Web­site)

Series: None

Pub­lisher: W. W. Nor­ton & Com­pany

Genre: Non-Fiction

For­mat: Hardcover

Source: Bought from Book­store


Ever won­dered why lit­tle chil­dren love lis­ten­ing to sto­ries, why older ones get lost in cer­tain books? In this enthralling work, Maria Tatar chal­lenges many of our assump­tions about child­hood read­ing. Much as our cul­ture pays lip ser­vice to the impor­tance of lit­er­a­ture, we rarely exam­ine the cre­ative and cog­ni­tive ben­e­fits of read­ing from infancy through ado­les­cence. By explor­ing how beauty and hor­ror oper­ated in C.S. Lewis’s Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Mate­ri­als, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Pot­ter nov­els, and many other nar­ra­tives, Tatar pro­vides a delight­ful work for par­ents, teach­ers, and gen­eral read­ers, not just exam­in­ing how and what chil­dren read but also show­ing through vivid exam­ples how lit­er­a­ture trans­ports and trans­forms chil­dren with its intox­i­cat­ing, cap­ti­vat­ing, and occa­sion­ally ter­ri­fy­ing energy. In the tra­di­tion of Bruno Bettelheim’s land­mark The Uses of Enchant­ment, Tatar’s book is not only a com­pelling jour­ney into the world of child­hood but a trip back for adult read­ers as well.


I picked this book up on a whim, and from the start I expected to enjoy this book. I was, how­ever, unpre­pared for just how much this book would affect me and con­tinue to pop into con­ver­sa­tions and thoughts even as I’ve moved on to other books.

Tatar has a way of draw­ing you into the ideas so smoothly that you hardly real­ize that this book isn’t fic­tion. (I have to say that’s one of the things I love about good non-fiction, when it reads as smoothly and inter­est­ingly as fiction.)

I don’t like to mark up books, to me, even col­lege text­books weren’t strewn with high­light­ing and marks, but tons of sticky notes or even just scraps of paper I found to mark some­thing inter­est­ing. I found that I was barely into the intro­duc­tion before I needed mark­ers. While there was a lot that struck me to talk about, I am going to attempt to keep this to some major points.

It soon became appar­ent to me that encoun­ters with books leave mem­o­ries so pow­er­ful that read­ers con­stantly seek out­lets for pre­serv­ing them and shar­ing them with oth­ers. (p 11)

I imme­di­ately thought of how I have spent my life shar­ing books that I found inter­est­ing with my fam­ily, friends, and even new acquain­tances. While I do sell or Paper­Back­Swap some books a lot more are rec­om­mended and passed along to fam­ily and friends, who I have picked out as pos­si­bly enjoy­ing this book as well. My mother and father seem to be the major recip­i­ents in this cycle, but two of my best friends also ben­e­fit from this (and I from them when they sug­gest or send along books they think I will like.) I then thought about the book blog­ging world. It’s aston­ish­ing how many peo­ple have come together from all over the world to share their thoughts and opin­ions on books new and old. I have made quite a few new friends since I started writ­ing reviews of books, and found even more great recommendations.

Tatar orig­i­nally started her research with chil­dren, but dis­cov­ered that they didn’t always have a way to express how and why a book or the inter­ac­tion of being read to was so impor­tant to them. She moved to inter­view­ing her col­lege stu­dents that she taught and was swamped with so many reac­tions. One remem­bered their favorite story that was read to them before bed, while another learned to speak Eng­lish by read­ing books by Roald Dahl to sup­ple­ment her ESL courses.

I’ve had some encoun­ters now with my niece, Alaina, that were mir­rored in com­ments made by Tar­tar. She dis­cusses how in pic­to­r­ial depic­tions of chil­dren being read to a num­ber show the child/children lis­ten­ing to the reader but with a some­what ‘Mona Lisa’ face. You can­not tell if they are enjoy­ing the book, scared, or just what they’re think­ing and feel­ing about what’s being read to them. I’ve often won­dered when read­ing to Alaina (some­thing I’ve started this year with longer books) if she was actu­ally lis­ten­ing, or if she was just enjoy­ing the sound of my voice. She seems to get very still and almost comatose with a blank stare while I read. I will occa­sion­ally inter­rupt a story to ask her about some­thing that’s hap­pened and am con­tin­u­ally amazed when she not only has been pay­ing atten­tion all along, but she’s gleaned some tid­bit of infor­ma­tion from the story. For instance, our most recent read was Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. We reached a point where the grasshop­per is explain­ing to James that his ears are small discs on the side of his tho­rax (yes, she even remem­bered the word although did ask what it meant) and I asked her if she knew that before, to which she snapped out of her daze and we dis­cussed it for a bit, her learn­ing that they are indeed on the side of the body. Weeks later we were walk­ing the dogs and saw a grasshop­per and men­tioned that they had ears on their tho­rax. I know she is super smart, but it blew me away that at 5 years old she not only remem­bered that from the story (along with other bits about the crea­tures James encoun­ters in the peach) but talked about it later with me.

I recall that my mother read to us once tucked into bed at night until I was prob­a­bly around 10 years old. I don’t remem­ber all the books she read, but a few stand out. A lot of peo­ple seem to remem­ber the greats like Alice in Won­der­land or The Won­der­ful Wiz­ard of Oz, but the ones I remem­ber the most are the ones that made us laugh till mom had to stop for the night oth­er­wise we wouldn’t go to sleep. One in par­tic­u­lar was The Best Christ­mas Pageant Ever by Bar­bara Robin­son. I have no idea (and upon ques­tion­ing mom, nei­ther does she) how we man­aged to come across this book, but I remem­ber vividly each of us three kids tucked into our beds and my mother sit­ting in the hall­way between our rooms read­ing to us. There was some­thing about this story and the way mom read it to us that put us all in tears at times from laugh­ing so hard, and the vivid mem­ory asso­ci­ated with the story stays with me even 20 years later.

Some books have happy asso­ci­a­tions and some have the oppo­site. Tar­tar explains how books, for chil­dren, and I think for adults as well, allow one to expe­ri­ence dan­ger­ous events from a safe place with no fear of the reper­cus­sions as they fol­low the char­ac­ters in their adven­tures. I recently fin­ished re-reading The Nev­erend­ing Story by Michael Ende. For those that have not read the book but have seen the movie you will have no trou­ble under­stand­ing what I’m about to delve into. Bas­t­ian, a small fat book­worm of a boy steals a book from Coreander’s shop and hides away in the school attic to read it. As he fol­lows Atreyu on his quest to find a cure for the Child­like Empress, we fol­low Bas­t­ian as he finds things about Atreyu that he wishes were part of him – his brav­ery and courage to embark on this quest, and the will to con­tinue what becomes an impos­si­ble quest to find a human child. Bas­t­ian wants to be part of the story and in a way expe­ri­ences all of Atreyu’s suc­cesses and fail­ures along with him, but he is safe in the school attic and not in the Swamps of Sad­ness with Morla the Aged One or fly­ing through the air on the back of Falkor the Luck Dragon. As we know from both the movie and the book, Bas­t­ian calls out a new name for the Child­like Empress, trans­ports to Fantastica/Fantasia and not just read­ing a book in an attic.

Many of the books I’ve read over the years have done just that, trans­ported me to another time and place (fic­tion and non-fiction alike) to expe­ri­ence other’s points of view. Some touch me in ways that I still remem­ber to this day (Fol­low My Leader showed me what it’s like to lose your sight and be given that back to an extent, with the help of a guide dog) as heart­warm­ing sto­ries while oth­ers still ter­rify me at just the thought of them. One such book is House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. I truly love this book, but it scared me at times so much so that I could only read it on the sub­way sur­rounded by other peo­ple and never at night when I was sit­ting home alone in my apartment.

I’ve lis­tened to sto­ries read to me since a very young age, and read­ing on my own since I was prac­ti­cally able to hold the book. I’ve used them to dis­cover the world, but also as an escape for real­ity and things I just didn’t understand.

Some adults will find David’s [Cop­per­field] real-life coun­ter­parts mis­an­thropic. They regard chil­dren who turn to books as anti­so­cial and describe their retreat into read­ing as an unhealthy escape from real­ity, an effort to live vic­ar­i­ously and avoid engag­ing with the chal­lenges of real life. (p 16)

I con­tinue to and have always had a hard time fig­ur­ing peo­ple out. The way they respond to events and sit­u­a­tions per­plexes me to no end. I know that my love of read­ing and my choice in books has become some­what of an escape for me as I know, maybe not at first, but even­tu­ally, why char­ac­ters do what they do and why they respond as they encounter dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. With real peo­ple, I don’t under­stand their motives and I have a hard time read­ing peo­ple to fig­ure out if they are truly a friend or just some­one who col­lects peo­ple who can help them do cer­tain things and then be ‘thrown away.’ In books though, their rea­sons explained, their back­grounds revealed and the reader gets a closer look at why they chose that path.

Our curios­ity about the inte­rior lives of oth­ers, cou­pled with the exhil­a­rat­ing sense of fath­om­ing the com­plex minds of those who are not at all like us, keeps us read­ing. (p 20)

I do find it inter­est­ing that as the quote states about the curios­ity of other’s lives, for me, only per­tains to char­ac­ters in books. I am not one to fol­low the media and the frenzy sur­round­ing this actor or actress, this scan­dal or the next, but I can under­stand why so many peo­ple are fas­ci­nated by what hap­pens in another’s life.

I think this next part was one of my favorite parts. Tatar dis­cusses reader addictions.

[Nina] King describes the panic attacks of read­ers trapped in places with­out books: “The true addict can­not eat break­fast, fall asleep, ride a sub­way or go to the bath­room with­out a sup­ply of read­ing mate­r­ial, even if it’s printed on a sham­poo bot­tle or a cereal box.” (p 25)

I can eas­ily pic­ture myself stand­ing up at a meet­ing and say­ing Hi, I’m a read­ing addict. I read every­thing , and I mean every­thing. I’ve found that I love my new iPhone more than any other rea­son for the fact that should I be lack­ing some­thing to read (shame on me for not keep­ing an extra book with me) I have not only access to ebooks, but also the inter­net to read on there as well. I devour the writ­ten world around me. Street signs, graf­fiti on walls, miss­ing signs on tele­phone poles, ingre­di­ents, mag­a­zines that are around; you name it, I read it. And yes, I do admit that I have read my sham­poo bot­tle many a time in the shower.

It is inter­est­ing when Tar­tar dis­cusses dif­fer­ent types of read­ers. This prompted a deep inspec­tion into my read­ing habits as com­pared to my two broth­ers. We were all raised in a world of books. We were read to by our par­ents, and we all con­tinue to read as we get older, but we are all three entirely dif­fer­ent in our read­ing habits.

I’m an addict, my older brother is a his­tory buff and while he does occa­sion­ally read fic­tion, he is more inter­ested in fact, while my younger brother gets lost in Terry Pratch­ett and will sup­ple­ment with a few other books here and there, but mostly sticks to one author/genre. I’ve pos­tu­lated that per­haps it has to do with our per­son­al­i­ties. My older brother is very out­go­ing and if you put him in a room of 100 peo­ple he will come out of it know­ing a lot of them. My younger brother, on the other hand, might meet one or two peo­ple but wouldn’t count it as a bad evening if he didn’t. And for me, well I would prob­a­bly wan­der around a bit, smile and say hi if I should meet someone’s eye and then find some­place to sit and either people-watch or read a book on my phone. Given that we were raised in the same sit­u­a­tions grow­ing up, we are three entirely dif­fer­ent peo­ple when it comes to our intake of read­ing mate­r­ial and inter­ac­tions with peo­ple. I have some friends who have sib­lings, and were raised together, but their read­ing habits and their inter­ac­tions are so sim­i­lar that at times they could be interchangeable.

If there is a les­son to be derived from these med­i­ta­tions on child­hood read­ing, it lies in the power of words to serve as magic wands. Words have not just the aston­ish­ing capac­ity to ban­ish bore­dom and cre­ate won­ders. They also enable con­tact with the lives of oth­ers and with story worlds, arous­ing end­less curios­ity about our­selves and the places we inhabit. Such pas­sion promises to keep us, at least intel­lec­tu­ally, for­ever young. (p 31)

Despite bleak sta­tis­tics about the time spent by the aver­age Amer­i­can read­ing and despite the com­pe­ti­tion from other media, rang­ing from tele­vi­sion to video games, books do not seem in any dan­ger of becom­ing extinct. Sto­ry­tellers have kept print cul­ture alive and con­tinue to draw read­ers to book­stores and libraries. (p 71)

Two quotes together is not always the best way to go, but I think they work well together. Peo­ple are con­stantly talk­ing about books dis­ap­pear­ing in this day of tech­nol­ogy, but I think that is a far off event. There are ben­e­fits to read­ing things elec­tron­i­cally, but there is also some­thing to be said for the way a book, a tan­gi­ble, flex­i­ble object can invoke an expe­ri­ence that can be much more mem­o­rable. For me, with a book, I can read on the train, in a chair, in bed, and if I hap­pen to only have one hand free to hold the book, it’s easy and maybe I’ll bend the cover back to show just the page I’m work­ing on, or propped up on my head­board with one hand hold­ing it open and my other curled under my head on the pil­low. With tech­nol­ogy, you have to push a but­ton to move along, and I find it harder to find my place if I go too far for­ward or acci­den­tally go back, because with a book, my visual/touch mem­ory recalls it was on the left page before the last chap­ter started (or some­thing along those lines) mak­ing it easy to find my spot. I think for now peo­ple, although they like the con­ve­nience of tech­nol­ogy, they also like the expe­ri­ence that comes with read­ing a phys­i­cal book. In time that may change, but hope­fully not in my lifetime.

It is deeply para­dox­i­cal that a prac­tice involv­ing noth­ing but sit­ting still and star­ing at black marks on a white page is pitched as travel with the added ben­e­fit of pow­er­ful sen­sory stim­u­la­tion. (p 136)

How many times have you sat down and read a book about a par­tic­u­lar place and/or time only wish­ing that you could travel there or back in time to that point? I love his­tor­i­cal fic­tion for that rea­son. The descrip­tions and how very dif­fer­ent things were from the time I’m liv­ing in now make me want to learn what I can about them. I know that I can be trans­ported to a time and place that I’ve never laid eyes on just by a good descrip­tion in a book. A per­fect exam­ple is The Nev­erend­ing Story and that is one of the rea­sons that I con­tin­u­ally go back to read it over and over. The Secret Gar­den is another. These ‘trav­els’ stay with you and allow you to see places you may never see for your­self. I’ve read a num­ber of books on archi­tec­ture.   Brunelleschi’s Dome was one in par­tic­u­lar that I found engross­ing and although I can­not travel and see it as it was built, I can travel to Italy and see the fin­ished prod­uct which still stands to this day.

We can read travel mem­oirs of places we’d like to visit and see the pic­tures that are some­times included, but some­times we will see things dif­fer­ently than the author if we get to see it our­selves. And although we may see it dif­fer­ently, the oppor­tu­nity to see it through another’s eyes assists us when we are unable to travel and expe­ri­ence it ourselves.

Like Lyra, we carry with us our own golden com­passes – pow­er­ful sou­venirs, tal­is­mans, lode­stones, shape-shifters, and mantras from our read­ing expe­ri­ence that not only help us to nav­i­gate real­ity but also leave us eager for more – much, much more. (p 200)


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