Friday, October 15, 2010

The Luxury of Reading

Good morning to you on this rather dismal, grey New York Friday. I apologize for being in absentia for the past couple of weeks; my mother slipped on some acorns and "broke" her knee(true story!). She did quite a number on herself and actually had to have surgery, and so I've been boosting Amtrak's profit margins this quarter by zipping back and forth to be with her.

One of things she managed to do was tear her quad tendon. The way they mend it is actually quite intriguing (but not for the squeamish) -- they tie wire sutures to the torn edge of the tendon, and then drill holes in the kneecap so they can lash it tight, like a sail to a boom. Then they staple up the six-inch incision and strap you in a medieval-looking metal brace that locks the leg straight...and you can't put weight on it for six weeks while it heals. SIX WEEKS.

As of today, my mother has been under medically-enforced house arrest for a month, with at least another two weeks stretching out ahead, and she's really bored. Especially now she's cutting back on the prescription narcotics and actually awake. People come to visit, of course, but there's a lot of "down" time. So, appealing to the charitable hearts of my publishing pals, I have been sending her a lot of books.

She has been whipping through them at a voracious pace: since last Friday she has finished The Cookbook Collector and the first two Henning Mankell mysteries, and she's now knee-deep in Bill Bryson's At Home. When I was visiting her this past weekend, while watching her tick off on her fingers the other books she's read since her accident, and what she has next on her stack -- Room is first up, if you're wondering -- I realized that I was...jealous. Jealous because she actually has time to read.

If you're reading this blog, you're most likely an avid reader. But, if you are anything like me, the daily demands of life and work mean that the reading you do is in bed, in the half-hour or so before you turn off the light; it's in brief snatches of time on the subway or on the bus; perhaps, on a Sunday morning, you allow yourself a few pages before falling back asleep. I do spend a lot of time reading for work, but for me that's totally separate to "real" reading -- reading for pleasure, reading books that I've heard about or had recommended to me, books that I've eagerly anticipated. Books that I read simply because I want to, not because someone's asking me for a report.

I can barely remember the last time I spent an entire day, or even a full afternoon, just reading. All I can rely on are the visceral memories of childhood, of being utterly engrossed in a book to the exclusion of everything else. It's a completely different reading experience, a whole-body engagement that truly releases the transformative power of books. You give the words time and attention, and in return they envelop you into their world. Hours later, you return, a little dazed and confused -- a bit exhausted, even -- but exhilarated, different from the person you were when you begun.

This kind of connection just can't happen in the brief engagements we make with books in normal life. But for my mother, "normal life" has been suspended, and she has been able to rediscover what it feels like to READ: to lie with a book from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., to be so deeply embedded in it that breaking the connection to eat or go to the loo is like ripping off a Band-Aid, or clipping a blood vessel. And, as I listen to her describe how she felt while reading Great House , I know I want to feel that again, too. More often than I'd like, the pages of books go by almost in a blur because I'm exhausted and already drained; I read the words but I don't get "in it," I don't experience the holy communion that will remind me once again why nothing will ever, ever replace books.

So, here is my vow -- to make time to read. To turn off my phone and shut down my computer, to lie on the sofa and offer myself up at the altar of the book gods, hoping they'll take me.

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