I’ve loved Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time and the other four books in the series ever since I stepped into Meg Murray’s world decades ago (though A Swiftly Tilting Planet has always been my favorite; Many Waters, not so much). A few weeks ago at the library, I picked up another YA book by L’Engle, one I hadn’t known existed. It’s called Intergalactic P.S.3, and it’s basically a sketch of the story idea that would become the second book in the series, A Wind in the Door (lots of titles - I know!) Anyway, I opened the book, read the first page about the Murrays sitting around their kitchen table discussing problems of space and time and school bullies over stew – as you do - and bam! there I was, twelve years old, perched on the edge of adventure.
Few books can pull me in that way, even favorites, and I’ve been thinking about why - what is L’Engle’s particular alchemy? And I think I have it. It’s kything.
Kything, if you’ve never read a L’Engle book or if it’s been a while, is the ability some characters in these novels have to enter so fully into another person’s experience that they live it with that person.
In A Swiftly Tilting Planet, for instance, Meg kythes with her younger brother, Charles Wallace, as he travels through time to stop the destruction of the world through nuclear disaster. And this is how L’Engle sets up the scene: Meg sits on her bed in a circle of lamplight, listening to the howl of the wind outside. She closes her eyes. Concentrates. Finds Charles Wallace and is drawn into his experience. And then, at the end of the chapter, she’s herself again, in her room again, processing it all.
And there I am, twelve years old, sitting in my room on my bed, entering into Meg’s experience. At the end of the chapter, I’m myself again, processing it all. I’ve become Meg, in other words, more than I will ever become Anne Shirley, or Jane Eyre, or Jo March, though I can certainly enter their worlds, live their experience with them. But with L’Engle, I’ve reenacted part of the story. And because what Meg is doing in that adventure has cosmic significance, what I’m doing by reading seems to have cosmic significance, too.
And maybe it does. Because (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT – don’t read past this point if you haven’t read these books before and plan to read them) the lesson Meg has to learn over and over in this series is love - love for family, love for enemies, love for all that has been made . . . all creatures, all stars. And what better way to learn that than to kythe, if you’re in L’Engle’s world - or read, if you’re in ours?
Of course, reading doesn’t automatically make you a more empathetic person. But it can. A book can take you across the universe or into the universe of another person and then you come back to yourself, blinking, on your bed or the couch or wherever it is. And you’re more than you were. As C.S. Lewis wrote in An Experiment in Criticism, we read because “we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves . . . we want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts.” And in L’Engle’s books, we get an imaginative picture of someone doing exactly that.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments about kything or L’Engle or a book that has transported you . . .