A Day in Reading
A celebration of books throughout the day and the ways reading shapes morning, afternoon, and night
Something starts the day. Sometimes it is the sunrise, its light reminding the mind that it must return from the peace of sleep to the brilliant pace of day. Lawrence Durrell paints a sunrise on the waking page of Bitter Lemons that looks “as if some great master, stricken by dementia, had burst his whole colour-box against the sky to deafen the inner eye of the world”.
The body has its rhythms, and like most other things to do with our bodies, we often try to subdue those rhythms. We are forever locked into a master-slave relationship with the physicality of being. We wrestle as much control as we can from nature, resisting the sunrise and telling ourselves we are masters of our selves – I will determine at what time I will lumber from deep slumber to caffeinated consciousness. So the clock has become our tool for telling the time and telling our bodies to wake regardless of what the world outside is doing. The day begins with an alarm clock screeching, beeping, or buzzing, flashing light if the alarm is on a phone or is a digital clock with blinking digits.
For Nabokov, in King, Queen, Knave, the clock actually breathes life into the world. The book opens with a “huge black clock hand ... on the point of making its once-a-minute gesture; that resilient jolt will set a whole world in motion.” As the dial turns to the number that signifies, arbitrarily and yet meaningfully, the start of another day, “iron pillars will start walking past ... the platform will begin to move past ... a luggage handcart will glide by, its wheels motionless”. It’s as if the timepiece watches from its static position as the world, on the clock’s instruction, becomes animated and moves on around this place.
This is how I feel on this morning (a fictitious morning in its particulars but one that has existed many times in its generalities, qualities I will collate with other true, imagined parts of the day for this essay). As I wake into myself, lying on my side and staring at the phone I have just silenced, thoughts of the world and of the day ahead swirl through me as I silently watch. Some days, the play unfolding in my mind tempts me from bed quickly, eager to start doing what I have planned; other days, the performance is grim, a re-enactment of previous grey days full of cold chores.
Happily, our day today, the one created for this essay, is a day full of books. This is one of those days that reminds me of being ten or eleven and waking miserably for school, remembering an ecstatic second later that it is the summer holiday – it is a morning born with a sense of freshness and possibility, like an empty canvas waiting for whatever I bring to it. In Lanny, Max Porter’s painter character is brought by this spirit of potentiality to exclaim:
“Ah, Lanny, my friend, look at these blank pages. Don’t you feel like God at the start of the ages?”
God at the start of the ages, in my grander moments; a writer meeting with blank pages, more commonly; a person starting a new day, today.
After the bland necessities of relieving one’s aching bladder and brushing one’s teeth with zombie-stare at the over-the-sink mirror, every morning has its own special place. This place is conjured up within and by the smooth, cool, quiet atmosphere of the dawning day. It may be a place you will physically stay in past the morning, such as stretched out on the sofa or sitting upright at the desk, but later that same place will feel like a different place.
For now, there is a bubble in which I exist as I brew then sip my coffee and sit reading the first book of the day. I bookend my days with reading, and often have a particular novel earmarked for these two opposite ends of the twenty-four-hour spectrum, a book (almost always a novel, occasionally non-fiction if it has a strong enough narrative thrust) that I read on waking and before sleeping. The largest portion of the day will be filled with other books. This is only untrue during a holiday period, some portion of time unusually stripped of schedule and set apart from the flow of ordinary life, a pocket of stolen time within the year, and with which I devote myself to a single large book, something Russian and classic or fantasy based (this is a genre that specialises in books that weigh as heavily on time as they do the bookcase) or something from what we once knew as “the canon” that intimidates me with its size and well-established importance. In any case, the feet go up, the book rests on my knees, the coffee rises to my mouth, is sipped mostly without noticing though intermittently appreciated, and the world outside the book is quiet.
The placid tranquillity of this scene is deceptive, however. It is not passive, nor is it unproductive. This is the rev of the engine as I gear up my brain (if not quite my body, not yet) for the more attentive and deliberate work I will do this morning. It is for this work that I finally get off the sofa – a brief sojourn in the kitchen to pour out the bitter dregs of coffee from my mug and brew a strong tea as a bagel toasts under the grill – and I finally go upstairs to my studio. Despite the movement, I have not left that unearthly bubble of half-reality; I am in the same space I occupied earlier, because the atmosphere moves with me. I never know precisely when the bubble bursts and I am fully immersed in reality for the day, it just happens and I am later aware that it has.
Here in the studio, the morning blooms into fruition as a time of work, of building something, of sweat and effort. A morning without work feels to me like “a dwindled dawn”, a simile appropriated from Emily Dickinson in a line inspired more by friendship than a Protestant work ethic (Dickinson’s own diminished daybreak was caused by an absent companion). My construction tools are pen, paper, and computer. In The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan encourages me from six centuries ago by penning the advice to not “hesitate to mix the mortar well in your inkpot and set to on the masonry work with great strokes of your pen”.
This work depends, of course, on the prior and ongoing work of serious reading. Construction happens here too – the novel does its work, just as I do mine (borrowing here from Tennyson’s Ulysses). Milan Kundera reminds us that the work of a novel, its “sole raison d’être”, is to “discover what only the novel can discover”. He puts it even more strongly when he tell us:
“A novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral. Knowledge is the novel’s only morality.”
The novel is, in this sense, both the cartographer and the map itself. What a good book constructs is the act of discovery, repeated again and again for each reader, and every re-reader making fresh discoveries within the already explored terrain.
This is why the reading of a morning is of a more intense nature than reading at any other time of the day. This is reading in which I am consciously analytical, deliberately processing what I read. Pleasure here is an epiphenomenon but not the primary virtue. The narrative flow is resisted, and rather than being washed joyfully or with passionate abandon along the current of plot and style, the river of the book flowing faster where these two elements converge, I paddle backwards to slow my movement and pause to circle and eddy, or bob in a still pool, to notice everything I can about the nature of this water.
John Gregory Dunne writes in Harp that there are those for whom understanding is wrought from the act of writing:
“Clarity only comes when pen is in hand, or at the typewriter or the word processor, clarity about what we feel and what we think, how we love and how we mourn; the words on the page constitute the benediction, the declaration, the confession of the emotionally inarticulate.”
I also believe that readers are the same as the writer described here, but that the reader’s clarity (as consumer rather than producer) comes when book is in hand and the discoveries of the writer are made available to us through his or her prose.
Reading this way for so long with such assiduous attention is thirsty work, so a mid-morning coffee – and some kind of a snack – is demanded by a weary mind and hollowing stomach. Afterwards, with caffeine renewing a sense of energetic preparedness for the demands of deep reading, I return to my studio and my book, where I will remain in concentration until the internal alarm clock of a hungry stomach strikes again, this time insisting on a substantial lunch.
Midday is a silly time, a frivolous pause in the day, nothing serious about it by design, and so my favourite literary association with it is Mercutio’s quip, in Romeo and Juliet, telling the about-to-be-scandalised nurse that it is midday. He euphemises it by saying:
“[T]he bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon.”
Afternoon delight, indeed.
The morning is inspired by a spirit of discovery, while the afternoon is infused with a sense of exploration. We might think of this as our morning reading being the conscious act of seeking and our afternoon with books as a directionless wander. Both have deep value but of very different kinds.
There is a concept within the somewhat esoteric study of psychogeography (the effects of physical environment on the emotions and behaviours of individuals moving through that space) called the dérive. It is defined as “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances”, an unmapped journey whose departures and divagations are determined by the terrain itself and the traveller’s interactions with that terrain.
This is also how I view my afternoon reading, so often decided by the vagaries of whim. The particular richness of the sunshine today and the angle of shadow it casts behind the pine outside my window; a fleeting memory flitting into my mind from the nowhere space all thoughts and memories arise from and subside into; the energy for a challenge or the languorous, lazy desire to slip into something more leisurely – these and many more overlapping character traits and happenstance conditions, all part of the palimpsest of personality, determine what I will read right now.
It is not only the determinist character of the dérive that applies to an afternoon with books; there is also that it is a form of travel. Books are a literary space through which we move, journeying through the physical space of the world and psychic space of ideas. We travel across continents when we read. Roald Dahl’s precocious Matilda leads the way here:
“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”
This explorative spirit is given a fresh lift, like a hovering gull rising on a sudden breeze, by taking a walk with the book. This is a skill many don’t have or worry they won’t have, and the risk of discovering they are right about this lack is a face met with a lamppost; to the extent that I have this skill, it is a graceless, stalling talent that involves the mechanical switching of one’s eye from page to the world five feet ahead and back again without losing the flow of the sentence. Reading is slowed and the stroll can be at times little more than a toddler’s tentative steps in an adult body.
Still, it is worth the effort to have the dual pleasures of reading and walking outside, and so I attempt it today. The field in front of my house is pleasurably quiet, which might be because I am writing this in the midst of a national lockdown due to the 2020 epidemic, but I dislike the “encyclopaedic narrative” that insists on a comment for each current moment. I prefer the long-view of history and culture, so we’ll have it that my walk is uninterrupted by others today simply by chance. It does happen.
The book in my hand transforms my mind and transports me as I transport myself around this field. Lawrence Durrell, in The Dark Labyrinth, suggests that “paradoxically enough, travel was only a sort of metaphorical journey – an outward symbol of an inward march upon reality”. This accounts for the congruity between motion and mind experienced during walking-reading, in spite of the occasional clumsiness of the feat due to the clumsiness of one’s feet. I have read that travel sickness is caused by the mismatch between seeing movement while feeling nothing, thanks to the smooth ride of modern cars; this walking-reading produces an antonymic effect of nebulous pleasure at matching physical movement to the sense of boundless travel within one’s mind as I leap, page to page, from continent to continent, a period in the distant past to one in the far future.
As I begin the final stretch of this field, it occurs to me that ideas are also the water we swim through, markers of the distance travelled in our reading. We end up somewhere different from where we began, and we wind up as someone different too. In Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan’s sybaritic narrator thinks, “Love of pleasure seems to be the only consistent side of my character” and, in response, wonders, “Is it because I have not read enough?” She, like every confused soul seeking solace in literature, knows that novels will teach her more. They are both the breeding and testing grounds of ideas.
As I finally make my way home, returning to where I began my stroll, I return also to young Matilda and her books. Dahl tells us that “Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea”. Not only do readers seek and find ideas in books, those ideas seek and find us.
From a prison cell in Turkey, where he has been sentenced to spend his life confined for communicating with the plotters of a government coup “through subliminal messages imperceptible to normal consciousness” (seriously, that is in the verdict from a twenty-first century state, not a medieval inquisition), Ahmet Altan sends his ideas out to find us. In an essay called The Writer’s Paradox, he assures the world outside of his prison cell:
“Each eye that reads what I have written, each voice that repeats my name, holds my hand like a little cloud and flies me over the lowlands, the springs, the forests, the seas, the towns and their streets. They host me quietly in their houses, in their halls, in their rooms. I travel the whole world in a prison cell.”
When we journey through books, we carry their ideas new places too. Reading – I realise again as I have before and will again at other times in my life – is not only a pleasure, it is a responsibility.
“Lamplight, wine and good conversation sealed in the margins of the day,” Lawrence Durrell writes in Bitter Lemons, “so that one slept at night with a sense of repletion, of plenitude ...” It is the conversational aspect of this prescribed triad of evening treats that most deeply reaches the soul; it leaves the self with a sense of replenished energy that does keep one up later with the enthusiasm of impassioned debate and dialogue (augmented by that second or third scotch that smooths the edges just as dusk softens the roughness from the day) but also provides for sounder sleep. I enjoy the end of another day when sliding into bed with the satisfaction of earned exhaustion, nourished by reminders of and an experience with the things that matter emotionally. This is my formula for fulfilment: Work with furious concentration all day and round it off with eudemonic sustenance.
This too is something to be cultivated and consciously attended to; it is not falling into a slouched stupor on the sofa with Netflix as time slides by until the body is dragged to bed. Instead, it is a kind of leisure that engages the body and mind rather than numbs it. A thoughtfully prepared dinner, time taken to collect ingredients and source a recipe, vegetables sliced and diced, fried, seasoning applied with care; a glass of wine shared with a loved one or loved ones, considered and enjoyed; discussions during food and after dinner, with dessert or the next glass of red; discussion that becomes debate, good-natured and intentional. The sun sets as a backdrop, the lowering curtain on my day of reading.
I go to Durrell again for my favourite description of such intellectual and emotional sustenance. Again in Bitter Lemons, he describes the kind of person who has made something of being fully who they are, people for whom “style was not only a literary imperative but an inherent method of approaching the world of books, roses, statues and landscapes”. Do not, we are advised, fall haphazardly into saying whatever wants to fall out of one’s mouth; don’t merely express an opinion, and certainly not simply any and every opinion; read books, think about books, and express something of worth about your reading. The same goes for movies, art, gardening, exercise, raising children, or travel. Here are the friends Durrell describes during his evening entertainments:
“Freya Stark ... illustrated for us the wit and compassion of the true traveller – one, that is, who belongs to the world and the age; Sir Harry Luke ... who was fantastically erudite without ever being bookish, and whose whole life had been one of travel and adventure; Patrick Leigh Fermor and the Corn Goddess, who always arrive when I am on an island, unannounced and whose luggage has always been left at the airport (‘But we’ve brought the wine – the most important thing’).”
There is something self-sustaining about spending the end of the day in this way. It is as if the day I have spent in hard work and rich joy now feeds the evening and its communion, and that companionship and conversation returns to me to enrich my sleep and the day that will arrive after tomorrow’s sunrise. Durrell one last time before I say my goodbyes and goodnights and turn in with a book to bed:
“In that warm light the faces of my friends lived and glowed, giving back in conversation the colours of the burning wood, borrowing the heat to repay it in the companionable innocence of unpremeditated talk.”
The final moments of the day arrive, a period of transition from day to night, waking to sleep, active to resting. Here, propped up with pillows against the headboard of my bed, lamp on beside me, I bookend the day with whatever I was reading when it began. This is the kind of reading in which there is no resistance, no work to fight against the current, but the wilful submission to the narrative flow. I allow the story to do what it likes with me, to make me feel what it will without the intrusion of my mind and its otherwise constant analyses.
The stage is now set for sleep and dreams. I confess to a bifurcated view of dreams: I am deeply uninterested in their specifics, but appreciative of their general utility for the creative mindset. I don’t actually tell my partner in the mornings, “Don’t tell me your dream,” as Joan Didion’s husband reportedly used to tell her, but I do think it, because the rationalist in me itches at the lack of logical causality and the storyteller resents the lack of narrative causality. I side in this regard with Shakespeare’s Mercutio when he chides dreams as being “the children of an idle brain; / Begot of nothing but vain fantasy ...” I have in the past described dreams in my own way as meaningless stage plays by a Dada-inspired surrealist.
Still, there is something to be said for the quiet, unconscious work dreams do to shape the waking consciousness and inform the future. Dreams and the psychedelic subconsciousness work upon the foundations of things to be built tomorrow. As Anaïs Nin puts it in her short story “Houseboat”:
“When I lie down to dream, it is not merely a dust flower born like a rose out of the desert sands and destroyed by a gust of wind. When I lie down to dream it is to plant the seed for the miracle and fulfilment.”
It is during this time of magic and nonsense and serendipitous associations that answers to the questions of the day are found. There has been work into the psychopathology of those with schizophrenia and those with highly creative temperaments that seems to show a spectrum on which schizophrenia and artistic creativity both exist. The key takeaway is that both groups lack certain receptors that filter and direct a person’s thinking. Divergent thought – the ability to discover links between apparently disparate items and ideas – is present in the schizophrenic’s mind and the artist’s. Dalí once said, “There is only one difference between the madman and me. I am not mad.” Perhaps, but we are all artists while we sleep – we each forget the boundaries of “sensible thought” and dream paintings and plays and stories we could never imagine during the day.
This is what I vaguely hope for as my body slides down the mattress, my book abandoned to the floor, and I turn off the lamp.
Sometimes sleep slips past me, sliding over the rest of the darkened world, over my partner, subduing her so deeply in its soporific wash that she snores with the obnoxious rasp and volume of an engine revving, as if reality itself tears with her every snort and gasp. On these insomniac nights, if the fight to slip off into slumber is lost and I begin to get irate, anxious about how difficult tomorrow is going to be as a result of this present sleeplessness, I get up and go to the front room. A lamp goes on, my feet go up as I sprawl across the sofa, and I consider what I want to read.
Night reading is special. It is not as common as reading during the day, not even assured to happen once a month, and for people without any sleep complaints, it may almost never happen – as an adult. All life-long readers have cherished memories of reading in bed at night as a child. I have many specific memories of doing this, and yet when I think about losing myself in a book through the dark hours, so immersed that my sensible self cares nothing for the clock and tomorrow’s work and getting the recommended eight hours of sleep, I automatically conjure up a borrowed image of a child who is not me sitting on their bed with the duvet over their head so they form a human-blanket tepee, a torch in hand, scanning the pages of a scary story.
Who this child is or where the image is from, I don’t know exactly, but it seems to be some culturally common archetype. Perhaps, I hypothesise as I ask myself the question, it comes from the third Harry Potter movie, which begins with the boy wizard in exactly this pose, practising spells under his blanket at night – more likely, it seems, that scene was shot in that way because of the shared imagery that predates the movie.
There is always something of childhood about reading at night, for me at least. It was a dark and stormy night – I always want it to be when I am awake and no one else is, and I am between reality and dreams, and magic might be real and so might monsters. So tonight I choose a classic of fantasy, adventure, horror, magic and mayhem – on other nights it has been Jekyll & Hyde by Stevenson, or The Fall of the House of Usher by Poe, or The Lost World by Conan Doyle, or the same title by Michael Crichton if I want something even easier if I suspect I can tip my mind at last into unconsciousness. Tonight, I read Frankenstein.
As I read, I daydream (at night), allowing myself to fantasise as I not infrequently do about one day writing my own novel about dinosaurs (it’s only been done once half well, three times with mainstream success; there must be a way of writing a literary time-travel adventure with extinct predators!) or of finally finding a way of bringing the Victorian horror (of the Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde variety) into the twenty-first century, a postmodern take on the penny dreadful perhaps. It is through losing myself in these ridiculous ideas, which I rarely and barely entertain during the day, that I will eventually lose myself to sleep.
If this night magic and its far-fetched fantasies are ever to survive the light of day and take on a higher value than what it it has for the lone nocturnal mystic, they must be tempered in the morning’s rationality. Just as we are told that Hemingway told us (though likely never did) to “write drunk and edit sober”, H G Wells endorsed the productive effects of the Apollonian on the Dionysian, writing in The Time Machine that an idea might seem “plausible enough tonight, but wait until tomorrow. Wait for the common sense of the morning”.
The marriage of reason with madness might just be the formula for creativity. There is an old saying (old, yet not quite as old as Nietzsche, to whom the aphorism is often misattributed) that points out that “they who dance are thought mad by those who hear not the music”. Those dancers of dubious origin can translate their apparent insanity to wisdom by allowing others to hear the music; when the dreamer writes, sings, paints, creates great art in any form, we are made to hear the music of their madness. It wakes us to the beauty and truth he or she shows us with their art. That awakening then causes us to dream, and when we wake again, we start another day and another fresh page, and we write something new.
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• Bitter Lemons, Lawrence Durrell (1957)
• King, Queen, Knave, Vladimir Nabokov (1968)
• Lanny, Max Porter (2019)
• The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan (1405)
• The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera (1986)
• Harp, John Gregory Dunne (1989)
• Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare (First Folio 1623)
• Matilda, Roald Dahl (1988)
• Bonjour Tristesse, Francoise Sagan (1956)
• The Dark Labyrinth, Lawrence Durrell (1958)
• The Writer’s Paradox, Ahmet Altan (2017) published online at The Society of Authors [https://www.societyofauthors.org/News/Blogs/Ahmet-Altan/September-2017/The-Writer-s-Paradox]
• Under a Glass Bell, short story – “Houseboat”, Anaïs Nin (1944)
• The Time Machine, H G Wells (1895)