I've been a passionate reader since childhood. Print is beautiful to me. My eyes automatically seize on any text in the vicinity, whether a DANGER HIGH VOLTAGE sign or the side panel of a box of Cheerios. Some grown-ups remember the times they swam in a cold pond or raced their bikes along a country road as children. I remember going out to the beach one morning with The Once and Future King and looking up to find that the sun was setting. I remember the time I read The Outsiders, a book about disaffected teenagers, from cover to cover while draped upside down over a kitchen chair. My body hurt like hell, but I would have had to stop reading to get up.
As an adult, I can't read with that level of absorption anymore. In fact, during much of the day there are things I can't read at all. The newspaper, a book review, a lively magazine profile are all fine. But even when I have the luxury of complete solitude, I'm unable, before the hour of 10 p.m., to read a novel or a reflective essay. My body is still running on the practical clock. I literally can't get my breathing to slow down to the pace of imaginative prose.
Only after the children have gone to bed, my husband and I have performed triage on our to-be-discussed list, and my schedule for the next day has been organized can I sink into language with a capital L. I get into bed, adjust my thin pillow against my fat pillow. I put on my socks (it's no fun reading with cold feet). I open my book, and the following thought allows me to begin: No one needs me. Maybe no one even remembers who I am! It's too late in the day for me to make any more mistakes, disappoint anyone, complete any uncompleted tasks. However I may have failed or fallen behind, I'm off the hook until sunrise. And time, which all day has pressed like a tight band against my consciousness, slackens. The clock finds a 13th hour.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, has a name for the experience of well-being that I associate with reading: flow. The author of many books on the subject (including Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the best-seller read by golf fanatics everywhere), Csikszentmihalyi explains that flow is a state of concentrated attention in which ordinary worries are forgotten and ordinary intrusions fail to register. Some of the activities that we think of as pleasant and relaxing are actually poor at producing flow: TV watching, for example. That's because genuine flow activities are characterized by challenge. Serious reading, sports, sex, the creation of art, all kinds of problem solving—these activities are complex enough to be enlivening, yet predictable enough to help us achieve a sense of mastery. We connect with something bigger than ourselves, and feel both enlarged and refreshed.