THE BOOK AND THE CHILD

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.
Rabindranath Tagore

It is interesting that when Donald Winnicott uses this quotation at the head of his chapter ‘The Location of Cultural Experience’ he misquotes it as ‘On the seashore of endless worlds children play.’ This, I suggest, is because for Winnicott there can be no true meeting without play, and for him an ‘important feature of playing….is that in playing, and perhaps only in playing, the child or adult is free to be creative.’ Reading as a form of play for both children and adults is rarely discussed, and therefore a significant link between literature and psychoanalysis is largely overlooked. The fact that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has been so widely read by adults has kick – started a debate about crossover fiction and opened up the field of the importance of books and stories through childhood and throughout life. I am suggesting a thread from Winnicott’s idea of transitional phenomena to the pleasure found in reading, and I use a vignette of a patient to illustrate my point.

Winnicott’s last book, published posthumously, is titled Playing and Reality. In it he brings together several of his most important ideas about play and creativity. In his introduction he describes the book as a development of his 1951 paper ‘Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena’, an area to which little serious attention had been paid until then, despite the fact that parents observed that children often had some special object which was of great importance to them. Linus, from the Peanuts cartoon, with his blanket is a good example as being almost universally recognised, and also because it does not have to be a toy.

Winnicott enlarges on his central theme of what is inside and what is outside through the symbolism of this first not-me object. It is … well known that after a few months infants of either sex become fond of playing with dolls, and that most mothers allow their infants some special
object and expect them to become, as it were, addicted to such objects. It must seem to the infant to give warmth, or to move, or to have texture, or to do something that seems to show it has vitality or reality of its own. It comes from without from our point of view, but not so from the point of view of the baby. Neither does it come from within; it is not a hallucination.

It is, he suggests, the first object of imaginative play, the first not-me object, and he summarises the special qualities in the relationship between the infant and this object.

  1. The infant assumes rights over the object and we agree to this assumption.
  2. The object is affectionately cuddled as well as being excitedly loved and mutilated.
  3. It must never change, unless changed by the infant.
  4. It must survive instinctual loving, and also hating…
  5. Yet it must seem to the infant to give warmth…..

Its fate is to be gradually allowed to lose its importance so that in the course of years it becomes not forgotten and not mourned. It loses meaning, and this is because the significance of the object has become diffused, has become spread out over the whole intermediate territory between ‘inner psychic reality’ and ‘the external world as perceived by two persons in common’, that is to say, over the whole cultural field.

In other words, the subject widens out into that of play, and of artistic creativity and appreciation, and of religious feeling, and of dreaming……The symbolism and creative imagination can be used in solitary play, for example, with imaginary characters, or shared with others. Winnicott does not specifically mention reading, but reading is par excellence both something shared and something solitary; shared because there are always two people involved: the writer and the reader, solitary because it is likely to take place alone.

The following vignette from my work with one patient is an example not only of how this woman moved from her security blanket to finding security in other areas, but also of how her play with and from books became far more important to her than toys. The fact that she was an only child certainly played a part as she lacked the companionship of siblings.

Sophie had had a piece