A weekend or two ago I took the toddlers to the park, alongside which runs a small stream. The stream is always a hit because usually there are free-roaming ducks, which are only too happy to relieve you of your sandwiches.
This time, however, the stream was also occupied by a huge eel and it was me, rather than the children, who was jumping up and down with excitement.
Long, thick and black, it squatted in the shadows, but glided with a grace surprising for its bulk. It snapped the water’s surface for the bread and ate whole pieces with the gusto of a half-starved sailor.
It shouldn’t have been so amazing: after all, I’d read the entries on eels and eeling many times during their migration through the editorial process. But seeing this other-worldly creature through the water reminded me of the gap between the page (or screen) and real life. We read to help us navigate the world we move through, but even an encyclopedia (that most definitive of guides) cannot encompass our imaginative and experiential dealings with the world.
Of course, some things are best confined to the page: I don’t look forward to ever seeing a humpback anglerfish in situ, or brushing up against a salp chain in real life. But then, I don’t want to find myself a kilometre under water - there’s nothing there to help navigate that realm.
Unless, perhaps, you’ve first committed to memory open-ocean swimming and are ready to put prose into practice.