“Books are gateways. They are doors. You can open them and step into another place, and time. Another world. They hold our futures, but are also a treasury of our formative memories. Books are where I’ve met some of my closest friends…”
—Chris Riddell, The Writer’s Map
“A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out.”
—G.C. Lichtenberg, The Waste Books
* * *
In Patricia Lockwood’s novel, No One is Talking About This, the main character interacts with an internet-like entity she calls “the portal.”
The portal is not capitalized, so it’s not a particular place, but it is a kind of place, a space, that you enter and move around in. Things happen “inside the portal.”
The first page begins, “She opened the portal, and the mind met her more than halfway.”
Two paragraphs later: “Why did the portal feel so private, when you only entered it when you needed to be everywhere?”
In 2019, Lockwood explained the beginning of the book, in her talk, “The Communal Mind”:
A few years ago, when it suddenly occurred to us that the internet was a place we could never leave, I began to keep a diary of what it felt like to be there in the days of its snowy white disintegration, which felt also like the disintegration of my own mind. My interest was not academic. I did not care about the Singularity, or the rise of the machines, or the afterlife of being uploaded into the cloud. I cared about the feeling that my thoughts were being dictated. I cared about the collective head, which seemed to be running a fever. But if we managed to escape, to break out of the great skull and into the fresh air, if Twitter was shut down for crimes against humanity, what would we be losing? The bloodstream of the news, the thrilled consensus, the dance to the tune of the time. The portal that told us, each time we opened it, exactly what was happening now. It seemed fitting to write it in the third person because I no longer felt like myself.
Her (brilliant, I think) novel is about a woman who has to stay out of the portal just long enough to ask herself, “Why had she elected to live so completely in the portal?”
* * *
My eight-year-old spent a few weeks this year playing through Portal 2 on my old Xbox. I’d forgotten how great a game it was, and how weird — it’s a first-person shooter that wasn’t really a shooter.
“If you take the narrative seriously, Portal is actually a single-level game with a clever twenty-stage tutorial,” Gavin Craig explained in the now-defunct Idlermag.com. (Not to be confused with the excellent magazine, The Idler.) “The puzzle levels exist to teach you how to use the increasing variety of tools that you need to use to navigate the spaces between worlds.” (There’s something about this description that makes me think of the chapters in a book.)
Portal 2, and all good games, measures out just enough difficulty at each step that you’re sailing between that exciting “flow” space between your skill (what you can do) and the challenge (what you can’t do yet), and it’s never so easy that it’s boring, but it’s never so hard that you give up.
In Peter Turchi’s A Map and A Maze, he quotes Francine Prose on writing:
The challenge is to keep doing something different, something harder and scarier in every way than the thing you did before… to do something more difficult each time.
This is also called learning.
In A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Raph Koster claims that “fun” is “just another word for learning.” His definition of a good game is “one that teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing.”
This has also become my definition of a good book: “one that teaches everything it has to offer before the reader stops reading.”
Koster himself makes a connection between games and books:
Boredom is the opposite of learning. When a game stops teaching us, we feel bored. Boredom is the brain casting about for new information. It is the feeling you get when there are no new visible patterns to absorb. When a book is dull and fails to lead you on to the next chapter, it is failing to exhibit a captivating pattern.
Writing a good book, I’ve come to think, is about avoiding boredom.
First, you avoid boring yourself, and then you avoid boring your reader.
(In “A Case Against Killing Your Darlings,” R.O. Kwon recently wrote, “I don’t want any published novel of mine to include a single line that bores me.” When editing, we have to be sure we don’t cut out what’s most alive to us.)
I don’t know for sure where I’m going with this post. I opened a portal — my WordPress editor — and I started typing. (“Portal,” from the Latin, porta, meaning a gate or a door.)
This portal I’m typing into seems to me to be something like a “magic circle,” a term traced back to Johan Huizinga’s book, Homo Ludens:
All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the ‘consecrated spot’ cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc, are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.
You step into a kind of magic circle when you start writing, and you step into a magic circle when you start reading.
When I step into the portal, I am not sure what’s going to happen. That’s why I keep coming back.
“Only people who don’t write think you need to know what you think before you write,” says Marc Weidenbaum. “You write to learn what you think.”
I step into the portal, and, no matter how tiny the distance I travel, when I return, I’m changed, even just a little bit.
You step into the portal to discover what you didn’t know you were looking for.
You step into the portal and sometimes discover what you didn’t know want to know.
That is the gamble. The roll of the dice.
A book is the safest portal, and a diary is the second-safest portal. They are both private. When it comes to public portals, a blog, I think, is one of the safest, most forgiving portals.
I stepped into the portal a few hours ago and I discovered some things and made some connections that I hadn’t before.
Now I’m going to hit “publish” and step out.