Tuesday, February 15, 2011

`I Cannot Settle My Spirits To It'

On Sunday, through the living room window, I noticed my seven-year-old riding his scooter down the street, one hand on the handlebars, the other holding the book he was reading. Parental instincts clashed – alarm at the recklessness, pleasure in the devoted bookishness. I soothed myself with the knowledge he was wearing a helmet and not using a cell phone while driving, thus avoiding two criminal acts in the city where we live.

On Monday, on the school playground, I watched a girl reading a book with furious attention while she expertly twirled a hula-hoop around her waist – one of those unrecognized feats of human agility that will never make the Olympics. Minutes later, another girl was pushing a hula-hoop with her feet through a long puddle of water at the edge of the playground – while reading, of course. I was impressed by the smoothness of her stride. She never broke rhythm or looked up from the page, even as I gazed in admiration at her grace and concentration.

I know the lure of books, their all-consuming, world-denying seductiveness. When consciousness and text conjoin, there’s little that can sunder them. I remember riding as a reporter on a Navy weather-observation plane about a week before Christmas 1988. We flew out of the Naval Air Station in Brunswick, Maine, and headed south, seeking ocean storms off the Carolina coast. The sound was deafening and the plane replicated for its occupants the experience of a rock in a rock tumbler. The crew was fine but a civilian meteorologist vomited at impressive length. I spent the 12-hour flight, when not taking notes or talking to crew or scientists, finishing Little Dorritt.

Just as I’m a deep sleeper, I’m a deep reader, able to submerge without ballast and stay there until pulled to the surface. However, I can’t read in a moving automobile, though buses are fine, nor can I read for any length – of time or distance -- while walking. It’s difficult to visually focus and I fret about walking into trees and trucks. In this, as in much else, I feel affinity with Charles Lamb, as he expressed it in “Detached Thought on Books and Reading”:

“I am not much a friend to out-of-doors reading. I cannot settle my spirits to it. I knew a Unitarian minister, who was generally to be seen upon Snow-hill (as yet Skinner's-street was not), between the hours of ten and eleven in the morning, studying a volume of Lardner. I own this to have been a strain of abstraction beyond my reach. I used to admire how he sidled along, keeping clear of secular contacts. An illiterate encounter with a porter's knot, or a bread basket, would have quickly put to flight all the theology I am master of, and have left me worse than indifferent to the five points.”


Eric Thomson said...

Ironically, the erysipelas which put the soul of Lamb to flight was caused by a graze to the face sustained after an illiterate encounter with a stone he stumbled over while out for a walk. "I have been scandalously refuted", he might have said. And the Unitarian minister? 'Poor Lamb, unprotected by reading matter of any description. Lardner might have saved him.'

Jay said...

I've trying reading Proust while stopped in traffic, but find that I usually have only just found my place and begun to pick up the thread of his ruminations when the light changes or the car ahead of me moves forward and prudence and courtesy to other drivers require me to put down the book.

Shelley said...

Beautiful hula-hoop image. I would only add that a book can be the only refuge of sanity in a hospital bed or a waiting room.

Ballast, yes. Without them, the waves can go over our heads.

Helen Pinkerton said...

For me, trains were the best of all for absorbed reading in transit, some airplane flights, no bus or car rides, although a passenger reading to a driver in stalled traffic on a freeway is delightful and prevents apoplexy in the driver. Bicycles hardly. Hula hoop twirling!!! In youth, a convenient branch high in a tree was a grand refuge from pestering brothers

Fran Manushkin said...

I remember seeing the wonderful artist and writer Edward Gorey walking down Fifth Avenue in New York while reading a book. I think he even kept it up while crossing the street.