Friday, February 18, 2011

Guerilla Reading

The February break is upon us, and one of the things I hope to find time to do is read:  that completely engrossing kind of reading that ends with your looking up in surprise at discovering where you really are.  You know the kind of reading I mean.  You have walked onto the pages of the book, perhaps as a character or narrator or simply a hidden observer, to watch the events unfold, the characters struggle and triumph and birth and die, the world change for the better or the worse, turning now the young brilliant green of spring or suddenly plunged into the monochrome of winter.  Perhaps you finish the book.  Or maybe you finish a chapter and in the slight pause of turning a page and reading another title you notice that you are hungry or that the light outside has completely changed.  Maybe  your husband stands in the dining room telling you that dinner is ready--a fact you could have discerned if you had taken your head out of the book and smelled the world you are living in.  Your first reaction is surprise.  This is where I've been all this time?  I'd completely forgotten, so whelmed was I by this book, this story, this voice.

In her essay, "Reading," Virginia Woolf talks of another kind of reading altogether.  At the opening of the essay, she's visiting a country house with a distinguished library:  "I liked that room.  I liked the view across country that one had from the window, and the blue line between the gap of the trees on the moor was the North Sea.  I liked to read there.  One drew the pale armchair to the window and so the light fell over the shoulder upon the page....[S]omehow or another, the windows being open, and the book held so that it rested upon a background of the escallonia hedges and distant blue, instead of being a book it seemed as if what I read was laid upon the landscape not printed, bound, or sewn up, but somehow the product of trees and fields and the hot summer sky, the air which swam, on fine mornings, round the outlines of things" (Captain's Death Bed  151-152).  Woolf's description of the book merging with the landscape and in the process becoming unbound, is almost a metaphor for a different kind of reading, one that urges the reader to look up frequently to reflect, to consider the ideas on the page as they merge with the scene before her.  Sometimes I like to do this kind of reading in public places, coffee shops and comfortable chairs around campus, so that the scene before me helps me reflect on the book's relationship to the life I live.

I have some favourite places for what I call my guerilla reading; I've given it that name because I do it at unpredictable times or unusual places--usually places where no one can find me.  Stone's Throw, the coffee house kitty-corner from the U of R campus, is a great place to read poetry the first thing in the morning.  There a luscious decadence to starting the day reading the poems, say, of Don Domanski (most recently).  The ground floor of Research and Innovation Centre at 7:30 of a winter morning is wonderful for reading philosophy.  Between the north and south residence towers, you can watch the sun come up, watch the blinking Christmas lights flicker more and more indistinctly as you consider Heidegger's ideas about being.  It takes a bit of staring off into a space that's becoming saturated with colour to take Heidegger in.  I love the periodicals room on the sixth floor of Archer Library, except that the comfortable chairs in front of the windows are so often taken by sleeping undergraduates.  Coffee houses that give one a view of the street are also good places for guerilla reading.  Sometimes it's just the surprise of the light for the place and the time of day that makes my meditations on the book I am reading and the life I am living so intense and joyful--discovering light and the social life of the city and ideas all at the same time.

Neither the intense reading that forgets time and space nor the more diffuse kind of reading that attends to them are better than one another.  It would be easy to plunk mysteries in one category, philosophy in another, but they're really different relationships to the book, the world, and the self.  I hope to find time for both this week.

Where and when do you do your guerilla reading?  And what will you read this week?

The photograph above was taken in the Mendel Art Gallery's cafe by Veronica Geminder, whose work can be found here.

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