The ability to escape reality through books is reason enough for them to be addictive. But books are also like heroin: they don't just offer oblivion; they produce a high. And it's the high that I keep coming back for.
Exciting, page-turning adventures have an obvious high: the suspense of watching good guys escape bad guys, solve mysteries and battle monsters (or unpleasant people) sends real adrenaline through my veins. And, generally speaking, the good guys win, which creates a rush of euphoria.
But even quieter books without monsters or battles gave their own types of high. For one thing, reading allows me to identify completely with a character--not only do I experience that character's emotions, but I also take on character traits that I might not always exemplify in real life. I get to feel courageous, or honorable, or compassionate, or clever. Characters have flaws, of course, but ultimately even the tragic heroes have at least one redeeming quality that it feels good to identify with. It feels good to stand up for what's right, to defend the underdog, to discover the truth, to not give in. When Jane Eyre determines to leave Mr. Rochester--"Still indomitable was the reply--'I care for myself.'" When Molly Weasly cries, "NOT MY DAUGHTER YOU B*TCH!" (Best use of a swear word in fiction, ever!) I get to feel moral strength, or righteous anger, and that is a high.
The second type of high that all works of fiction produce, regardless of genre or style or plot, just by virtue of being a story, is a sense of significance. Ordinary life doesn't always feel imbued with purpose or meaning. The truly worthwhile goals (raising decent children, developing one's character) are pretty long-term, and it can be hard to see the point of most day-to-day minutiae (and a lot of it is simply pointless). A story has a point. It has meaning; that's what makes it a story. The events come together in a climax, the characters progress to an epiphany, everything that happens is meant to happen. Whatever moral centre the book rests on, it has a moral centre. There are protagonists and antagonists. Fantasy is particularly good at drawing clear lines between good and evil--how many times have I looked up from a book and wished there were some orcs to fight or a sword to go find--then I'd know exactly what I was supposed to do! But even in realistic stories without obvious good guys and bad guys, there is a conflict to be won, and the protagonist wins it--or loses it but finally understands. Meaning is wrested from the chaos of events.
Our brains are wired to need significance, and stories fill that need. I for one, need rather frequent doses of this particular prescription.
Recent books that have given meaning to my life:
Toads and Diamonds, by Heather Tomlinson: A very unique and exotic retelling of the fairy tale.
Soulless, by Gail Carriger: You wouldn't think it from the title, but this one's hilarious. And a romance.
Crocodile on the Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters: I have discovered Miss Amelia Peabody, Egyptologist and crime solver.
Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers: I have also discovered Lord Peter Wimsey, sort of a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Columbo, what?
A Matter of Magic, by Patricia C. Wrede: Contains Mairelon the Magician and its sequel, The Magician's Ward, which is just as much fun.