If flow is so rewarding, why do I have to wait until the tail end of the day to get it? Why can't I slip into a little flow in the afternoon? Sven Birkerts, the author of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, suggests that one reason is the ever more rapid pace of contemporary life. Cell phones, beepers, e-mail, fax machines: These technological wonders have trained us to expect interruption and made us impatient with downtime. "It becomes harder and harder to wait for the ATM to spit out your money, when an ATM used to be seen as a miraculous thing," Birkerts says. "If this is the atmosphere that accompanies you through your day, then to sit down and start reading 'Call me Ishmael' requires a major repositioning."
Still, I wonder if there isn't something in the nature of reading itself that requires a ritual of withdrawal such as the one I perform each night. Any truly literary work is a world freshly born, a voice with its own powerful accent. It demands surrender. Birkerts himself, in one of his essays, admits that when we begin a novel "we expend an enormous energy." My friend Nancy, another passionate reader, agrees. "When I read a novel, I totally lose myself," she says. "I even start to think in the voice of the writer. But entering a book is not as easy as it once was. I'm older, more cynical, less suggestible. My time is fractured and maybe my attention span is shorter. It becomes more and more difficult to make that commitment."
The difficulty of the commitment is what I feel as I stalk my bookshelves in the middle of the afternoon during an unexpected windfall of free time. My eyes scan the unread novels, essay collections, ruminations on God and love and history—all the biggies. My heart beats rapidly; I grow excited with possibility. I'm in love with the many things that I have yet to feel and know. I'm experiencing the idea of reading, which is generally so stimulating that I discover I can't begin at all.
But when the bedroom light is dimmed and the telecommunicatory hum of the universe has been smothered behind the closed door, I'm ready for the reality of reading, which is less exalting but ultimately more satisfying. I find it in myself to begin; I open to page one. A man is standing in a bakery on a hot summer afternoon. I see the shirt the man is wearing, note the fact that his tie is folded in his pocket. I see the baker's wife at the cash register. Suddenly I'm sheltered by a thicket of detail. The sights and sounds and smells of the book pull me in and slow me down in a way that those of the real world, oddly, often do not. I'm no longer at the wishing-fearing-planning pace of my day. I'm not running but walking.
Is reading time real or unreal time? Is it an escape from the world or a deeper engagement with it? Both, of course. Maybe I should have spent a little more time on my bike as a kid. But today, when life demands so much of us—not just the responsibleness of adulthood but the speed and resilience of eternal adolescence—reading may be a necessary escape. It may be what makes the practical day, with its dishwashing and shoe tying, its clock ticking out our deficiencies and our mortality, not just bearable but embraceable.
Pamela Erens is the author of The Understory.
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