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.
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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