January 24, 2011
Years ago, I read an article about how Bill Gates periodically takes a reading retreat of, say, two weeks or so. He chooses his books. Shuts out the world. And sinks long and deep into reading. From what I recall of the article, this retreat of his into reading revitalizes Gates. In getting away from the world of his work, and in reading what he otherwise wouldn’t have time to read, his mind is freed. And that careful attention to something other than the problems of a workaday world is what creative people need to make gigantic and unpredictable shifts in their work when they finally return to it after a long hiatus.
That’s for me, I thought, as I read the article. But it’s taken me until just this year, until just this past two weeks, in fact, to do it.
There’s a scene in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours in which the mother of a small child goes to a hotel to read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. She’s at a crisis in her life; she has a small child; she tries to be the very best mother but it’s hard for her; she’s unfulfilled by her traditional marriage; she is very definitely suicidal. But when I first read the novel, first saw the film based upon the book, it was not the fact of her crisis that grabbed my attention (though I recognized it), but the act of her needing to check into a hotel (not to have an affair) but to read without being interrupted.
That’s a big piece of her problem, I thought. She can’t read without being interrupted.
That scene resonated with me. When I read it, I cried. When I saw the film, I cried harder. I’d had two small children. I’d raised them. And I’d read scores of books while I took care of them. I had to: I was going to graduate school. But I’d read a paragraph, then glance at a sleeping child; I’d read a few lines, then tend to a crying baby; I’d read a chapter, then organize my children to go to the park. It was in and out of reading for me every time I could read. And so it was the idea that this woman had to go away, had to go someplace where she wouldn’t/couldn’t be interrupted to read that resonated so deeply with me. (And this isn’t just about women with children, of course; it’s true for all of us, I think.) I hadn’t had that luxury of falling into reading since childhood when I would go to the library in the summer, check out a pile of books, sit on my family’s back porch and read to my heart’s content. The only time my parents didn’t interrupt what I was doing was when I was reading. No wonder that I retreated so happily into reading as a child.
But once I grew up, even though I became an English major, a teacher, a scholar, and a writer, I somehow thought that I couldn’t take a very long stretch to just read whatever I wanted without writing. I thought that a day without writing was a wasted day. I’m a fan of Julia Cameron, and in her recovery plan for reclaiming our creativity, there’s a week where she insists that the people following her plan don’t read. She writes that many blocked creative people read too much, and that if they take a week without reading, they’ll perhaps find themselves writing or undertaking another creative act.
I thought just the opposite. That, as a writer immersed in a project, or as a writer in the planning stages of a project, I didn’t/couldn’t read nearly enough. There weren’t enough hours in the day to live a life (cooking, doing laundry, exercising, working, writing, cleaning, seeing family and friends, shopping for food) and read as much as I wanted to.
When I was writing about Henry Miller, I read his marvelous The Books in My Life. Miller spoke about the fact that, for him, every act of writing began, in one way or another, with an act of reading. Miller’s reading was voracious; it was idiosyncratic. He wasn’t bound by the idea of what he “ought” to be reading. He found books in all kinds of ways and learned what he could from them. Sometimes it was the sheer enjoyment of the words on the page that thrilled him. Though he left City College after, as he put it, an unfortunate encounter with the Spenser’s “Faerie Queene,” reading meant the world to him. But reading books of his own choosing rather than works someone else told you you ought to be reading. He read Jean Giono. H. Rider Haggard. Marie Corelli. Greek plays. Rimbaud. Rabelais. Miller read them all. But he didn’t just read them. He paid careful attention to them. After all, he knew, the reader/writer connection is hopelessly out of balance. A writer takes, say, three years to write a book. A reader takes, say, six hours to read it. By reading with attention, Miller believed, we accord the writer the respect the work deserves.
A few weeks ago, I finished a proposal for the book I’m writing about my father and World War II. I wanted a break from writing. And I decided, at long last, to take that reading retreat. I’d put it off for, I’d say, at least ten years. I was going away. I had gotten an iPad. And although I still love to read conventional books (especially in the bathtub), I wanted to take fifteen or so books away with me, and that wouldn’t have been possible with conventional books. And so, after spending some time thinking about what I wanted this reading retreat to be over the last month or so, I’d downloaded fifteen books, figuring I’d read, say, five. But I wanted to have enough reading so that I could put a book down if I felt it didn’t suit me (or, more properly, if I wasn’t the right reader for it).
I happened to be going to a place where e-mail and the Internet were damned near impossible to get. I couldn’t get e-mail on my iPad. I had access to a computer and the Internet, sure, but it was located in a drugstore some 150 steep steps and two steep hills away from where I was staying. And it was expensive to use – a dollar a minute. Because of these impediments, I was pretty well cut off from the outside world for two solid weeks. Two solid weeks of reading.
I read ten books. And it’s not the number that counts. I didn’t keep a scorecard. Throughout the two weeks I spent reading, I settled into a few hours of reading in the morning, a few hours more in the afternoon, and an hour in the evening. I read, not all day long, but about five hours a day, every day. But…. there were no interruptions to my reading. No telephone. No e-mail. No Internet. I stopped reading when I wanted to, not when I had to. At the end of the first week, I felt as if I’d found the reader in myself I’d lost many, many years ago. The reader who wept over a passage. The reader who laughed out loud. The reader who circled back to the beginning of a book to start it again because it was so delicious. The reader who marveled at the brilliance of a phrase, of a sentence, of a long stretch of writing, who sat and stared at the sky in astonishment at something wondrously written.
Sure, I itched to write. Who doesn’t when they’re reading something skilled? But I promised myself I wouldn’t write. At least not about my project. I did write long meandering appreciations of the works I was reading. I wrote what I wanted to remember of what I read. And this took time, too. But I made sure that the writing didn’t get in the way of the reading.
I wish I’d had conventional books with me, for the tactile pleasure of holding a book, of turning a page. But still, the reading was everything I’d hoped it would be. And more, much, much more. What a privilege, at this time in my life, to do this, I thought. And I came back home, ready, eager, happy to jump into my own work. Still, even though reading is part of my life’s work, during these two weeks, I think I relearned how to really read. Read the way we were meant to read. Without interruption. And I’ve vowed to give myself another reading retreat this time next year.