These cold January days I am watching Marc read War and Peace. I mention watching because a hardcover volume of that heft draws attention in a domestic landscape. I see the book on the island in the kitchen before meal times, on the table next to Marc’s chair in our library in the evening, in a nest of blankets at bedtime.
Reading a thousand-page book is nothing unprecedented or particularly daunting for Marc. Someone who has himself tried his hand at writing fiction, Marc is good at keeping hold of narrative threads – even through multi-volume works like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and Trollope’s Palliser novels. Marc seems to enjoy navigating through the fictional worlds that a crafty author can invent. Marc fundamentally gets a kick out of a good read.
Marc’s tastes regularly move to nonfiction, and then he can have a hard time choosing among the many topics that appeal to him. Film criticism, political biography, social analysis, French history and culture – representative works of these various genres line our bookshelves. Needless to say, Marc proves himself a well-read conversationalist at meals with our friends.
From my long ago days as an English teacher, I recall classroom discussions on the classic texts from British and American literature. Anthology open before me, I almost daily posed the fundamental teacher’s questions: “Where do we find that idea in the text?” “What is this writer trying to say about her life?” “Can you remember ever feeling this way?”
If I then listened well enough, if I paraphrased a student’s contributions carefully enough, if I subtly urged alternative ways that a text could open up the lives we each of us try our best to lead, I could sometimes feel an atmosphere of wonder begin to form around me and the students. I would feel somewhere deep within something like the start of tears.
Briefly it was hard to imagine leaving the boundaries of that classroom when the bell rang later for the change of classes.
The amazing thing for me to remember now is that often I was reading with a new group of students the very texts I had already read and taught a number of years. The energy came each new year from delving, from returning to a place where I may originally as a student have sat mystified myself, from tasting afresh the possibilities that just these words and just these phrases in just this context might reveal to readers on a day like this.
And so it is no surprise that often my own reading years later centers on a text with which I can sit for a long time – a poem by Mary Oliver, an ancient psalm, a naturalist’s evocation of a winter pond, a Belgian theologian’s attempt to pray the truths of his tradition. Sometimes I sit with a book and do not turn a page for half an hour.
I will not make it through War and Peace at that rate.
I will not hold a table of dinner guests spellbound and entertained.
I will hunger for the next quiet reading hour, though, and hold myself ready for revelation.