Greene: The Solace Of Books

Jan 23, 2017

Writer Zadie Smith has said she sometimes wishes she could go to jail, so she could finally read as much as she wants.

And while I don’t share her rosy view of incarceration, I do sympathize – more so every year. But time off from work can be just as frantic as time at work. And with connectivity, we’re never completely off, anyway - so if not vacation – or jail time – then what?

Poet John Milton undertook six years of self-directed private study in Hammersmith, England, just west of London, in 1632. He read theology, philosophy, history, politics, literature, and science. His intellectual development can be followed in writings now housed in the British Library in London.

More recently, when Nina Sankovitch lost her sister to cancer, she found solace in reading a book a day for a year. She chose only one book by any given author, wrote about it in a daily blog, and produced the lovely memoir, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading.

Milton considered his six years of study to be preparation for his career as a poet; for Sankovitch, healing was the goal.

This year, I’m going to spend a long weekend here and there with great and lofty books, if only to remember that mediocrity, greed and cynicism do not always carry the day. I need the strengthening perspective gained from mental travel, being transported through great writing, to new perspectives. Holing up in a “silo,” conversing only with like minds, though sometimes reassuring, is ultimately limiting.

The greatest challenge is to convince myself and those around me that my reading retreat is both serious and necessary. But it helps if I provide for creature comforts by stocking up in advance on adequate supplies of coffee, toilet paper and kitty litter.  

The point is to read what you require for refueling, and answer to nothing but your own curiosity. I want to read American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S Grant, by Ronald C. White. But if The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken by Tarquin Hall is what you crave, have at it. A New Delhi based whodunit might be exactly what you need.

And if feeling guilty is a problem, just pretend you’re sick – because reading great books is intensive care for the soul.

Correction 10:09 a.m. Jan. 24: The text has been corrected to reflect the right name for the author of American Ulysses.