Unplugged: The Freedom of Leisure Reading

As a homeschooling mother of three, time for leisure reading is scant—though more possible ever since I (for the time being…) managed to wean myself from social media and Netflix. Come nighttime when the kids are finally asleep and the chores at last tended to, I find my energy and alertness almost depleted and I am able to read no more than 10 or so pages at a time. Nonetheless, my ambition is to go long—and over the course of months, with a book in tow wherever I go, I have been able to plow through a somewhat satisfying number of books.

I wish I had more frequent and larger windows of solitude to read and write—and I hope that one day, when those days come more plentifully—Lord willing—I will relish those moments as much as I do now (for we all know that the more we have of something, the less likely we are to cherish it). Perhaps the busy mother knows better than most the preciousness of true free time.

And now that my youngest is four and I increasingly find myself with ‘freer’ hands, I have taken advantage of this newfound freedom at libraries: week after week, I mosey over to the used book sale shelves in hopes of discovering a book, one that just happens to be sitting there all lonesome and neglected, but whose title, book cover, or prose-at-a-snapshot tickles my curiosity.

Sure, some weeks turn up dry—yet that sporadic stumbling upon something potentially beautiful renders every trip worthwhile. I can’t be certain the book will live up to its enchanting shell; but for $1 or $2, the book is certainly worth a try (for every Timmy’s, Starbucks, or bubble tea I forgo, I have earned myself the reward of buying more books).

The discovery of the unsought for book (the unconsidered subject matter…) or a book of interest if only I had known it existed—has made a hunter out of me. Only recently has Amazon seen less of my business (there is something freeing about chancing upon a book without the aid of algorithms, “You may also like…”).

And as a Christian, I strive to read both religious and secular literature simultaneously. There is so much good writing to learn from, and even reflections of a worldly nature can evoke a spiritual pining that only serves to remind me of that verse in Ecclesiastes 3:11, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart…” or those words from C.S. Lewis:

“A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called ‘falling in love’ occurred in a sexless world. Here, then, is the desire, still wandering and uncertain of its object and still largely unable to see that object in the direction where it really lies.” (from Screwtape Proposes A Toast, “The Weight of Glory”)

Here, then, are snippets of my reading encounters so far this year (due to the already long list, I am excluding my Christian reading):

From Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir, A Widow’s Journey, a work exploring such themes as death, loss, mourning, meaning, endurance, and identity:

“Ray [Oates’ deceased husband] is an editor of living things. He doesn’t create them or cause them to live but he tends them, cares for them and allows them to thrive—to blossom, to yield fruit. Like editing, gardening requires infinite patience; it requires an essential selflessness and optimism” (11).

“John Updike once said that he’d created ‘Updike’ out of the sticks and mud of his Pennsylvania boyhood—so too, I’d created ‘Joyce Carol Oates’ out of the sticks, mud, fields and waterways of my upstate New York girlhood. Both of us—that is, our actual selves—John, Joyce—seem to have been amazed, over all, by the accomplishments of our namesakes.. A shelf of books looks formidable when glimpsed all at once—as if the achievement were all at once, instead of wrought—laboriously, obsessively—through years of effort” (254).

“A way to escape—elude—the sinkhole of the soul—is to immerse myself in work, For work is, if not invariably sanity, a counter-insanity… I am not able to write fiction any longer, except haltingly. Like a drunken woman staggering, colliding with walls, stunned…I am too exhausted, I have so little concentration… No more could I plan a new novel than I could trek across the Sahara or Antarctica… I will take out of a drawer a novel I’d finished before Ray died. To save myself, as a drowning person might seize a rope, a lifeline, to haul herself up—to haul herself up, up—I will rewrite this novel entirely… In this novel I will mourn my lost husband, as I’d believed I had mourned my lost father… In this way, I will try to defeat the basilisk jeering at me—I will ‘endure’” (356).
From Ray Robertson’s Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live:

In his chapter, “Work”:

“I had nonetheless learned a valuable literary lesson: there is no such thing as ‘writer’s block’ (an entirely imaginary disease afflicting both nothing-to-say professionals and not-knowing-how-to-say-it amateurs). Clearly, if you have something to say, say it; if not, don’t. Having nothing to write about doesn’t mean that you’re blocked—it means that you shouldn’t be writing” (34).

In his chapter, “Art”:

“And the best thing anyone can say about any work of art, whether it’s a novel, a painting, or a three minute rock song, is that it’s dangerous…dangerous in the way that Kafka defined all good art: as the careful application of an ice pick to the frozen sea within us. Genuine art speaks to no one else but you” (65).

In his chapter, “The Material World”:

“Even the heartiest humanistic optimist can’t help but occasionally wonder if the undeniable pleasures of the material world aren’t somehow compromised by their equally undeniable ephemerality” (79).

In his chapter, “Solitude”:

“Technology’s most recent bequest has provided humans with the means to almost entirely obliterate enforced solitude. In the past, even those afraid or uncertain of the sometimes intimidating intensity of stillness and quiet were at least occasionally compelled to ride the bus alone or to sit quietly on the toilet with nothing or no one else for company but their own taciturn souls…Perpetually drunk with distraction, we’re not becoming less knowledgeable—never have so many people had such easy access to so much information—just less human. And a head full of facts has never been a prerequisite for being wise. Busyness is the antithesis of creativity: the former is energetic but empty, the latter typically protracted but enduring” (126).

 

From Nicholas Delbanco’s Lastingness: The Art of Old Age:

(Note: I would pair this reading with J.I. Packer’s Finishing Our Course with Joy)

“For the elderly practitioner, perseverance is just as much as for the apprentice, a necessary component of the production of art…the willingness to stay interested, to pay the kind of alert attention to the world around you that the wide-eyed young routinely pay. I can remember when each morning seemed a burnished, shining thing, when every afternoon and night brought with it the possibility of something or someone not known before. Today there’s very little new beneath the fictive sun. When I was a beginning writer everything was mill-grist, every conversation worth transcribing or embroidering, each encounter consequential and all emotion fresh. It happens, still, but rarely—that inner imperative: the voice that urges one to pay attention, to learn. More often there’s exhaustion, a weary inability to persuade oneself that words matter or that an experience merits the recording; with so much verbiage everywhere, and so much of it fouled or wasted, why add your own daily extrusion to the language dump? …But all of this gets harder and harder to manage with conviction” (28).

“‘None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm’—so wrote Henry David Thoreau…The word itself derives from Greek en theos, and signals the arrival of the penetrating God… Rheumatic and more than half blind, in mourning for such friends as Stéphane Mallarmé and Alfred Sisley as well as a number of family members, Monet nonetheless continued to paint—by his own attestation from seven to eleven each morning and then again all afternoon—producing a kind of pantheist chapel and shrine to the visible world” (120).

Quoting Giuseppe Lampedusa: “When one reaches the decline of life it is imperative to try and gather together as many as possible of the sensations which have passed through our particular organism. Few can succeed in thus creating a masterpiece (Rousseau, Stendhal, Proust) but all should find it possible to preserve in some such way things which without this slight effort would be lost for ever. To keep a diary, or write down one’s own memories at a certain age, should be a duty ‘State-imposed’; material thus accumulated would have inestimable value after three or four generations; many of the psychological and historical problems that assail humanity would be resolved. There are no memories, even those written by insignificant people, which do not include social and graphic details of first-rate importance” (183).

“A common denominator of the final years would seem to be just such a constancy of purpose, a temperamental (often ill-tempered) stick-to-itiveness that denies decline. The admiring comments ‘But he seems so young’ or ‘She’s so energetic’ contain at least an overtone of the condescending reverse: ‘Why don’t they act their age?’ There’s a complicated back-and-forth of patience and impatience, the forward-facing and the conservative impulse; we desire both repetition and to start out anew” (204).

“Yet if ‘time is the great teacher,’ a senior artist ought to have earned wisdom to impart. She or he may grow more venturesome, less trammeled by propriety—even literally incontinent—once there seems less to lose. It’s not the young artist who seems iconoclastic or speaks truth to power; those who approach the end of life often do the same. Here too there’s a kind of defiance, a variation on the theme of ‘Death, where is thy sting?’ Leonardo da Vinci died at sixty-seven, but his self-portrait in ‘old age’ looks utterly unsparingly at wrinkles and white hair. What I’ve been trying to suggest is how these strategies wrest gain from loss, spin gold from straw, making something enduring of what feels fleet. And this is the reward accorded those who spend their life in art: For a brief period, and possibly far longer, they are not the fools of time” (205).

 

From Salman Khan’s (creator of Khan Academy) The One World Schoolhouse:

“People learn at different rates. Some people seem to catch on to things in quick bursts of intuition; others grunt and grind their way toward comprehension. Quicker isn’t necessarily smarter and slower definitely isn’t dumber. Further, catching on quickly isn’t the same as understanding thoroughly. So the pace of learning is a question of style, not relative intelligence” (20).

“This is one of the paradoxes and potential dangers of standardized tests: They measure mastery of a particular curriculum, but not necessarily of the underlying topics and concepts of which the curriculum should be based. The curriculum, in turn, becomes shaped by the expectations of what will be tested. So there’s a kind of circular logic, an endless loop going on. Teach what will be tested; test what most likely had been taught. Topics and ideas and levels of understanding that go beyond the probable parameters of the test tend to be ignored; they aren’t worth the classroom time” (166).

“The crucial task of education is to teach kids how to learn. To lead them to want to learn. To nurture curiosity, to encourage wonder, and to instill confidence so that later on they’ll have the tools for finding answers to the many questions we don’t yet know how to ask. In these regards, conventional education, with its emphasis on rote memorization, artificially sequestered concepts, and one-size-fits-all curricula geared too narrowly toward testing is clearly failing us” (180).

“We can go much farther, and get there far more efficiently, with self-paced study, mentoring, and hands-on experience. We can reach more ambitious goals if we are given the latitude to set those goals for ourselves” (189).

“One can appreciate and internalize neither logarithms nor Thoreau if they are force-fed at an artificial pace… When Newton or Gauss explored mathematics that unlocked mysteries of their universe, their intent was to empower—and maybe inspire—humanity. The goals of Twain, Dickens, or Austen were similar: to deeply entertain while opening our eyes and minds. Neither the great mathematicians’ nor the great writer’s goal was to create tools of torture for high school or college students—but that is how many students have grown to view their work” (240).

“…if you give students the opportunity to learn deeply and to see the magic of the universe around them, almost everyone will be motivated” (253).

 

In the world of narrative (be it fiction or nonfiction), one sits back appreciating an author’s ability to capture with poetic precision the spectrum of human emotion and experience:

 

From Tobias Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s Life:

“All my images of myself as I wished to be were images of myself armed. Because I did not know who I was, any image of myself, no matter how grotesque, had power over me. This much I understand now. But the man can give no help to the boy, not in this matter o nor in those that follow. The boy moves always out of reach” (27).

“Dwight’s [Wolff’s abusive stepfather] bill of particulars contained some truth. But it went on and on. It never ended, and before long it lost its power to hurt me. I experienced it as more bad weather to get through, not biting, just close and dim and heavy” (100).

“I rocked [my mother] and murmured to her. I was practiced at this and happy doing it, not because she was unhappy but because she needed me, and to be needed made me feel capable. Soothing her soothed me” (55).

“[Dwight] meant to impugn my father for being rich and living far away and having nothing to do with me, but all these qualities, even the last, perhaps especially the last, made my father fascinating. He had the advantage always enjoyed by the inconstant parent, of not being there to be found imperfect… This way of thinking worked pretty well until my first child was born… When I finally got my hands on [my child]…I felt a shadow, a coldness at the edges. It made me uneasy, so I ignored it. I didn’t understand what it was until it came upon me again that night, so sharply I wanted to cry out. It was about my father, ten years dead by then. It was grief and rage, mostly rage, and for days I shook with it when I wasn’t shaking with joy for my son, and for the new life I had been given” (122).

 

From Amanda Lindhout & Sara Corbett’s A House in the Sky, a memoir chronicling the harrowing experience of Amanda who is held as a hostage in Somalia for over 400 days: 

“When I was a girl, I trusted what I knew about the world. It wasn’t ugly or dangerous. It was strange and absorbing and so pretty that you’d want to frame it” (opening lines).

“Something happens when you are alone most of the time, when there are no distractions. Your mind grows more powerful—muscular, even. It takes over and starts to carry you” (220).

“As the weeks passed, I wished for things that were large and abstract—freedom, comfort, safety. Beyond that, my most specific longings involved food—plates of medium-rare steak, bags of candy, a cold beer in a frosted mug. I could pass two hours imagining one meal in granular detail, the ecstasy of making an omelet, for example, the chopping of a crisp green pepper, the sssss of butter melting in a pan,, the lemony yellow of eggs beaten in a bowl. More than anything, I craved a hug, the chance to fall into the arms of someone, anyone, who are about me” (222).

“I tried to climb away from the shock of what my life had become… I ate pancakes drizzled in syrup and took baths and watched sunlight pour through trees. This wasn’t longing, and it wasn’t insanity. It was relief. It got me through… Day by day, though, I collected up old sweetnesses and fed on them. I remembered the happier moments in my life, unfolding them with languorous slowness, time being the one currency I had to spend” (291).

 

From Ian McEwan’s The Children Act, a story about a high court judge who presides over contentious family cases and who must face the impact of her decisions which almost consume her:

“Perhaps it was perverse to discover in this sudden interruption a promise of freedom. On the other side of the city a teenager confronted death for his own or his parents’ beliefs. It was not her business or mission to save him, but to decide what was reasonable and lawful. She would have liked to see this boy for herself, remove herself from a domestic morass, as well as from the courtroom, for an hour or two, take a journey, immerse herself in the intricacies, fashion a judgment formed by her own observations. The parents’ beliefs might be an affirmation of their son’s, or a death sentence he dared not challenge. These days, finding out for yourself was highly unconventional. Back in the 1980s a judge could still have made the teenager a ward of court and see him in chambers or hospital or at home. Back then, a noble ideal had somehow survived into the modern era, dented and rusty like a suit of armor. Judges had stood in for the monarch and had been for centuries the guardians of the nation’s children. Nowadays, social workers from Cafcass did the job and reported back. The old system, slow and inefficient, preserved the human touch. Now, fewer delays, more boxes to tick, more to be taken on trust. The lives of children were held in computer memory, accurately, but rather less kindly” (37).

 

From Raymond Carver’s final book of poetry before passing away from cancer, A New Path to the Waterfall:

“The Attic”

Her brain is an attic where things

were stored over the years.

From time to time her face appears

in the little windows near the top of the house.

The sad face of someone who has been locked up and forgotten about.

 

In tasting these samples, I hope that you may be inclined to go off on your own little reading adventure, delighting in the discoveries you may find. As I tell my children, patience is an essential quality when reading–the will to see a book through, even sometimes to endure a book’s duller or more disagreeable moments so that we don’t miss the highs, which carry the prospect of broadening and deepening our perspectives on this world, even inspiring us to fashion for ourselves loftier, more artistically-ambitious goals.