Read Without Ceasing

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?

via pausetowonder


6 comments on “Read Without Ceasing

  1. wil says:

    Ahh…the reading retreat. I still remember as a teen driving up to Yellowstone. We stopped off at the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, loaded up with a stack of books, then drove on to the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. It was a very peaceful, relaxed, memorable trip.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Nice. We stayed there too, in the cabins. I had a memorable time with a book there. My cousin bought “The Tracker” by Tom Brown Jr. in the hotel gift shop and it had a huge impact on both of us. Life was never the same after that.

  3. びっくり says:

    You threw me for a loop. I thought you spent time in Yugoslavia for a bit there. Naturally, occasional get aways can be nice, but I feel a responsibility to myself and others to participate in community.
    Naturally, books are so patient and forgiving. My new life of train commuting has given me more reading time, but today I took four legs on the train and each was filled with more mundane paperwork. A book on the Shinto faith waited patiently in my rucksack.

  4. Sylvia says:

    One could argue that reading is also participating in community, interacting with the author and engaging the world of art and ideas. But that probably depends on the type of reading. “Beach” books probably wouldn't fit into that category! A book on Shinto most certainly would. Here's hoping you run out of paperwork soon. 😉

  5. Stefanie says:

    400 pages a day? Wow, to have the time and space for that! I am v ery grateful that books are so patient. I have some that have been patiently waiting on my shelves for years and they haven't made a single complaint.

  6. Sylvia says:

    Heh. Yes, and it's a good thing they aren't allergic to dust. 😉

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