Why I Love Reading Magic Realism Books

On escaping reality, one page at a time.

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Photo by Cederic X on Unsplash

I think most people know the feeling. You’ve just been to the bookstore, the library, the second hand shop. Your bag is heavy, both literally by pulling on your shoulder, but figuratively too: there’s a lot of potential in there.

As a child, I had a hard time letting go of the possibility of magic. I saw fairies in every flower, I felt that my emotions could affect the weather. I waited for my Hogwarts letter, half-surprised when it didn’t arrive. That trait was imparted to me through books.

And as I grew up, that feeling of craving the extraordinary, of seeing more than was really there, translated itself into a love of magic realism.

The joy of magic realism books is that when you read them, as you absorb those ideas and thoughts. It’s so close to real life that there’s the smallest possibility that it just might be true. You come so close to believing, just for a minute, that there could be magic in the world again.

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Of course, you grow up, feel silly for having really believed even for a moment. You put away your ability to suspend your disbelief in favor of cynicism and snark, which are much less likely to get you hurt. All you have to lose is the ability to say what if?

I’ve always defined myself by books.

When I was younger, it was simply that I read a lot of them, firmly shunting me into the nerd camp. I was the kid that read at lunchtime, that read after finishing tests, that read on the school bus. It felt sometimes like I was eating books, drinking in their ideas and applying this or that characteristic to my personality or life. To Kill A Mockingbird opened my eyes to the history of the South more than my textbooks did. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles taught me more about creativity and imagination than my art class.

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Especially to a kid who felt a little stuck in a small, run-down suburb of Georgia, books were my way out. Like a lot of other book worms, I lived in the worlds I read about, fully believing they existed even if it was just in my mind. Books let me consider the impossible for a lot longer than I think I could have otherwise.

As I got older, books let me identify as an academic, a knowledge-seeker, a lover of what might come in the future, and a bit of an impractical dreamer. I sought out the perfect world that clearly didn’t exist yet. I could not imagine a future in which books didn’t feature as the main event in my evenings.

But like most teens, I got older, got tired, and started looking for an easier way to be entertained. I didn’t think about what I’d lose in exchange.

Reading books lost its appeal.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this but despite my grandiose thoughts and my full bookcase, my entry into true adulthood was marked not by fanfare, but by the click of the TV remote.

When I got home from work, there was a brand new, stranger-than-fiction discovery waiting for me: I was too tired to read. Watching TV was just easier. The entertainment fed itself to me, and it was new and fresh and exciting, requiring no brainpower or critical thought. I watched Netflix nearly every day, whether as I cooked, after dinner, or just before bed.

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I still managed to retain a bit of belief in the unknown: I investigated horoscopes only half-ironically, I avidly researched the possibility of aliens, but I not longer lost myself in fantasy. These little touches were all I could realistically do, to give my life a small flavor of the unknown.

And, to be honest, my life was poorer for it. I’d learned that there are actually no secret magical hiding places in the world, no dragons still sleeping undiscovered. If I cry and it rains, it’s just a coincidence.

I found it hard to read because I was more tired. But more than that, it was harder because I lacked the ability to lose myself fully in the world, to dive into whichever bit of fiction and pretend it was real for long enough to matter. And as I fell out of the habit, it got harder. I preferred reading self-help articles, non-fiction books on career enhancement, which brought me skills but not an awful lot of joy. Or, it goes without saying, magic.

I’m suspending my disbelief.

Deep into my book drought, I happened to open a book by Joanne Harris called Chocolat. It’s the story of a woman and her daughter who move to a small community, suspicious of newcomers, situated on the banks of a small French river. She wins them over with chocolate and small magics.

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I fell into Vianne’s world, fell deeply in love with her charming habits, her ways of luring the wary townsfolk into her shop. It could have been a true story, had it not been for the small amount of magic she practices. Not spells, not potions — just tiny, nearly incidental bits of household magic. Cantrips. Blessings.

It’s the kind of magic you can nearly imagine happening in the everyday world. An unexpected gust of wind, a surprising kindness you didn’t look for — anything could be the fairy hiding in the flower again.

I love nearly any type of book put before me, and I’m reading with appetite again. But there’s something I need that lets me come close to believing in magic again, something that not every kind of novel will do. And that’s magic realism books.

We need escapism more than ever.

To be frank, we live in a world where unbelievable things happen every single day but we mostly see the bad ones. We have a broken justice system, rampant inequality, pain and poverty nearly everywhere we look. The news cycle seems to be quicker and quicker, turning into a vortex of everything that makes us sad or mad or feel just plain beat. Social media revels in displaying the worst of anyone. It wears you down.

I’m not saying books are the only viable solution — it’s way too complex for that. But personally, I need magic realism in my life. I need that quality of dreaming, the potential that there’s a little bit of impossibility in this world, that you can see magic if you look hard enough.

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While science fiction and high fantasy are still my preferred genres, there’s something to be said for magic realism. There’s a lot to be gained from reading a book that makes you question, just a little bit, if what you know is real, or if might just be possible that there’s magic in this world.

Written by

MSc by Research. Psychology nerd. She/her. zuliewrites.com

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