‘One day we climbed up a mountain in search of a tarn, just so Johannes could say he’d read in a tarn. Only it turns out that this tarn wasn’t the tarn he was looking for. So we went up another mountain, books stuffed under our arms, in search of another. Once we reached that, he did his reading, whilst I paddled about in the reeds. Then back down the mountain we went. He was never satisfied. Always on the move in those days; always looking for the next opportunity. Did you ever see one of those paintings of St. Jerome in the desert, sitting in a cave, surrounded by books? Yes? Well, we were a couple of regular St. Jeromes, wandering about the wilderness with a portable library…’
When I invest, I invest in books. A book is always there for you in times of need. One forms a relationship with a book which is deep, rich and rewarding; a relationship which evolves over the years, in ever-unexpected directions.
You cannot say the same for a power drill. A perfectly useful item, in its way, but with rather – shall we say – limited attributes. A power drill will not entertain, educate or enlarge your mind. It will not transport you to another world. Put it this way: I would rather be trapped on a desert island with a book than with a power drill.
This may explain why I have never invested in a power drill. When the occasion to utilize such an object arises, I fall back on more primitive methods. My tools are my hands. Indeed, I do not at present even own a hammer, all of which ensures that the process of screwing in a bracket is a slow, sometimes painful one. It is an adventure, no less; one which can last several days, creating as it does a fine collection of bruises and blisters.
There are, however, upsides. Weak old scholar that I am, I find I cannot stick to such tasks for very long. Screwing in a bracket to put up a blind – as I was doing this weekend – takes a lot of energy out of me, for which reason I tend to do it in fits and starts. I ascend the ladder, turn the screw a few times, take a deep breath, turn the screw a few more times, and then back down the ladder I go. Not to take a rest, I hasten to add, or to get myself a cup of tea. No, no, no. At the foot of the ladder I have placed a book of poems. To recover from the business of turning the screw, I turn to a poem. When tired of the poem, I return to the screw. The two activities feed each other: reading the poem prepares me for turning the screw, and vice versa.
The point of all of this is, of course, to serve as a reminder that reading works very well in conjunction with other activities. One might even argue that reading works best in conjunction with other activities (so Johannes Speyer would say). I’m not sure I would go this far. What I would say, though, is that short bursts of reading, taken in the gaps left by another project, are not to be under-estimated. I can quite honestly say that I got more out of my poems in this moment than I would have done had I been, for example, sitting peacefully in an armchair. Reading and life, it seems, are best taken together.
They tell me the library can be located behind the bright green gates. I wouldn’t have guessed it otherwise. There is no sign that reads ‘library’. There is no indication at all. Nothing invites you beyond those gates except your own curiosity.
Then again, why wouldn’t you be curious? Beyond the gates is a large garden; in the centre of the garden an octagonal lake. The garden is populated by flowerbeds, bushes and trees. To the left of the lake a winding path leads you towards a significantly sizeable steel structure. It strikes you as something in-between a warehouse and a greenhouse. It is, in fact, the Perfect Library.
Before you get to the building, you take a wander around the gardens. Not everything is as it seems. There are books in unexpected places. Books laid out on the grass, like sunbathers. Some faced upwards, some downwards; others on their sides, pressed down into the turf. Books sheltering in the shade of a small shrubbery, or up on the branches of trees. Books sitting on park benches, like old men, or under them, like patient dogs. Books in boats, floating across the lake. Some books in the lake, enjoying a morning swim.
You kneel down by the water’s edge, dip your hand into the glassy depths, and lift a book dripping into the sunlight. The book is well-made and hasn’t suffered unduly from its underwater adventures. You can still peel the soaked pages apart. Sometimes it’s good to get your fingers wet. So what if there’s a ribbon of pond-weed trapped between pages thirteen and fourteen? You can always use it as a book-mark…
Whitman had two studies where he read: one was the top of an omnibus, and the other a small mass of sand, entirely uninhabited, far out in the ocean, called Coney Island. (M. D Conway, 1866)
From which we can draw the following conclusion: Walt Whitman was very much the Active Reader. Not for him the cosy, well-upholstered armchair! Not for him the yielding mattress! Not for him the smart grass of a prominent public park, safely in sight of other impressionable readers! No, Whitman sought more daring habitats. The moving bus, with its interrupting jolts and bumps; with its fellow passengers mumbling nonsense to one another; with its torn and dirty seats. Or the ‘small mass of sand’ on the remote, windy island. Sand that gets into your shoes, into your ears, into the spine of every book you own.
Uncomfortable reading: the way reading should be.
I had cause to write, the other day, of the tradition of baking books. In doing so I was, of course, extending a conversation that I have been having on this blog for several years now. The subject of that conversation is Active Reading; the means by which the adventurous reader breaks out of the standard ‘sitting in an armchair’ mode and embraces all manner of other reading methods, whether it be reading on a bike, reading up a tree, or reading whilst hand-gliding.
The expert on this matter was none other than Johannes Speyer, my late mentor (see here for more of him). For Speyer, reading was not an activity to be taken lightly. When you take up a book, you are engaged in a serious creative activity; one which requires a certain amount of mental, even physical, preparation. There was never anything off-hand about Speyer’s reading habits. This was a man who planned ahead.
Which leads me to a more general question. How do we (or, indeed, should we) prepare for reading? Under what conditions might we enter a book – and how do those conditions affect our reading of that book? Or, to put it another way: how does one approach reading foreplay?
What do we do to books, and to ourselves, before we slide into the first page? Speyer did all manner of things to get him, and his books, ready for reading. He sprinkled them in dirt, he soaked them in wine, he hung them upside-down in smokehouses. He tied them up in ribbons, which he removed, one by one, before opening the covers. He read whilst naked, or clothed in fourteen layers of silk. He meditated for eight hours before turning his mind to a text, or set his alarm to wake him in the night in order to read a single sentence before slipping back into sleep.
Variety was the spice of Speyer’s reading habits. He stuck to nothing; resolved to trying out new methods, regardless of success. Others have been less patient, developing a practise which they repeat over and over again. One man I know goes on a five mile run before starting any novel. Another showers several times before picking up a newspaper. Still others will only read at night, under the covers, by the light of a torch. I went through a period of only reading on an empty stomach. Whatever gets you in the mood.
As noted in the most recent excerpt from my glorious memoir ‘Conversations with Speyer’, Johannes Speyer was probably the first critic to fully explore the concept of ‘read-cycling’ – that is, reading books on bikes.
Certainly, there are easier – and less perilous – ways of consuming literature than this. Having tried it itself, I can confirm that even the most talented ‘read-cyclers’ are likely to suffer a few bumps and bruises along the way. I know at least one man who broke his ankle whilst reading Scott Fitzgerald on a mountain bike. Another unfortunate reader was so engrossed in the latest novel by Fjona Uu that she cycled straight into a lake.
Reading and cycling are not natural bedfellows, whichever way you look at it. But that is the point of the activity. ‘Read-cycling’ puts the risk back into reading. Your experience of a book changes drastically under certain circumstances. Reading a poem in an armchair is one thing; reading that same poem whilst pedalling furiously with both feet is quite another. I heartily recommend taking this risk. (I also recommend wearing a bicycle helmet. And shin-pads. And some sort of upper-body protection).
My eyebrow elevated in curiosity. ‘Surely that’s somewhat dangerous? Taking a book on a bike?’
‘Of course it’s dangerous! That’s the point. Not to fall off a bicycle, per se, but to be willing to take the risk. But they misunderstood me, of course they did. They thought I was cycling along main roads, my head in a book. What a load of nonsense! I cycled through empty fields, and I only fell off half a dozen times. Later I designed a contraption which I fastened onto the handlebars to hold the book.’
Chapter Three, Part Two has just been published. Contain your excitement, if you are capable.
Readers will have to wait a few weeks until the next excerpt, owing to on-going negotiations between me and my typist.