Sometime in the late eighties, though, when I was in my twenties, I started going to Jahorina in the summer for long reading holidays. I would pack my little fićo (the Yugoslav replica of a Fiat 600) with books and tapes and move up there for a month or so. I was still living with my parents then, which, besides threatening my rightful privacy and personal sovereignty, made reading with sustained attention pretty hard—my parents were prone to designing elaborate chores for others to accomplish. But in our cabin I could read for eight to ten hours a day, fully in charge of my own time, which I regimented like a monk. I interrupted my monastic mission only to attend to the needs of my foolish body, which, in addition to food and coffee, demanded some occasional exertion. Hence, I went for long hikes up the mountain, to the harsh, barren landscape above the tree line. I avoided other people and delayed for as long as possible my trips on foot to the supermarket, a couple of miles away.
For weeks before leaving for the mountain, I would be assembling my reading list. There were all kinds of books on it: from John le Carré’s Smiley novels to scholarly works on the origins of the Old Testament myths; from anthologies of contemporary American short stories to the Prince Valiant comic books. At the top of the list were the thick classic novels that I couldn’t focus on in the city, what with my parents’ choral nagging and the daily temptations of urban life.
In the cabin, I would enter a kind of hypersensitive trance that allowed me to average four hundred pages a day. The book would become a vast, intricate space in my head where I stayed even when eating, hiking, or sleeping. It took me less than a week to read “War and Peace,” for example, and Bolkonsky and Natasha showed up regularly in my dreams. And while I was reading “The Magic Mountain,” on my hikes I conducted conversations with imaginary partners, not unlike the ones between Castorp and Settembrini in Thomas Mann’s novel.
… I went to the mountain to replenish my mind, to reboot its language apparatus. My reclusion worried my parents, and my friends thought I was crazy. But I loved the silence cushioning me while I read.
—Aleksandar Hemon, “The Magic Mountain”
What reader wouldn’t love such a distraction-free environment? My poor books find it hard to compete with all the other projects and amusements in my life. They are just one in a crowd of possible occupations, and being the least time-sensitive, they are too often passed over. DVDs must be returned, gardens must be weeded, appointments must be kept, but books can wait. Is there anything more humble and patient than a book?