A reader’s mind is terraced by unwreckable geographies. No terrorist can bomb Kafka’s castle and its surrounding stone wend, no tornado can churn to dust O’Connor’s hot small towns. Even when shared with other readers, books remain your pure possession. You wander their streets alone. George Saunders once said that when he reads a book, it registers in his mind as a color. “Qualia” is the term to describe the indescribable way things seem to us—color, for example. My experience of orange is not the same as anyone else’s experience of orange. You cannot know the orange I see when I read this book. This is the best kind of failed communication.

The streets and towns I’ve built from books are more quickly and vividly available to my memory librarians than are the recollections of actual places I’ve visited. Give those librarians a book title, and within a time not measurable by time, they’ve found it in the neural stacks, and loaded it onto a projector, and a silent film begins to play—an aerial sweep over Revolutionary Hill Estates that concludes at one lonely house, the home of Frank and April Wheeler; a push through a wardrobe of fur coats that egresses into a winter otherworld.
Film is not the wrong way to describe how these geographies manifest. They unspool when provoked, they are cinematic, and the only things that can destroy them—I take it back, they are not unwreckable—are other movies. It’s tiring to complain about literary adaptations; I won’t do it here. There are good adaptations and bad adaptations. They are not a threat to books, regardless of their fidelity or blasphemy (sometimes the most faithful is the most profane). Watching the film of a book will never replace the experience of reading that book, save in one way—it will ruin the movie in your head. It will tsunami your geographies, it will drown the people and replace them with Kate Winslet, or Leo DiCaprio, or those English pretties who killed off my Pevensies, all of whom were more angular in my head movie, more sallow, less nubile.
When I am prompted in my daily life to think of these adapted books—or if I should reread them—a territorial battle wages. I read the name APRIL and I see Kate. I do not want to see Kate. I want to see April. I strain and strain to see her, to the point where an aneurysm seems likely. April pulls back into view, but ethereally, she’s perpetually at risk, Kate waits in the wings to upstage her, and to be honest I cannot see April quite as clearly as I used to see her. I remind myself: April is thin and nervous, her hair is made of that floppier blond material, the kind that, when pulled into a ponytail and viewed from behind, could belong to an eleven-year-old girl. She lives in that other house. But that other house has been overridden by the new system; also, my librarians have been fired. A new computer file has been saved over the original. A file exists with this same name. Do you want to replace it? I don’t. But I can’t help doing so. What was natural is now unnatural. I cannot read without a fight.
I don’t know why I care, except that I know exactly why I care. I read Revolutionary Road when I was thirty, and the geography I constructed and inhabited is equally composed of my thirty-year-old circumstances. I read it in a man’s sparsely furnished Providence apartment; I drove up there from New York, where I was otherwise married, and I read about the tragic dissolution of a marriage while plotting my own. As is true of many of my generation, Narnia is the first geography where I lost myself. To data-wipe my wan Pevensies and replace them with their Stepfordgangers is to be forbidden access to a time-space wormhole back to a person—me—who got lost, and wanted no one, ever, to find her. She got her wish. I will never again know what it is like to be eight and swept distantly away by that piece of furniture and that lamppost while never leaving home. I’m back in the qualia conundrum. I can ask that younger self, how does it seem to you? But I can no longer know.