A Writer Reads: When and Where? How Time and Place Affect Reading Choices

(A post from guest author Mary Burns)

Every year around June, commentators on radio or TV, or in the newspapers, roll out lists of summer reading suggestions.  This obviously indicates that we think certain books are better at certain times, in certain places.  In my case, I have put down a book because I wasn’t in the mood for it, or couldn’t concentrate, but try it again later and love it.  On a recent broadcast of Eleanor Wachtel’s CBC radio show, “Writer’s and Company,” I heard that some major fans of Middlemarch (George Eliot) didn’t really appreciate the novel on first reading, in a literature class in university, but now return to it every five years or so. Some literary works resonate more at different ages.

The AneiadMy goal is to catch up with everything I missed when I was younger, for I was not a methodical reader but devoured whatever occurred to me, that I stumbled across.  The Aeneid was one I wanted to get to, and did, several years ago, and when someone asked me what my favourite book of the year was, I named that one.  I’ve just finished reading it again, and I still love the wonderful similes that grace my prose translation (by David West) of this epic poem, i.e. “As when Indian ivory has been stained with blood-red dye, or when white lilies are crossed by roses and take on their red, such were the colours on the maiden’s face.”  I am moved by the tenderness between parents and the sons they sacrifice to war, intrigued by the very real presence of the Gods.  But I am less patient with all the names Virgil uses to pay tribute to the characters he honours for their bravery in battle.  I’d forgotten about all those names. It was hard to keep track of who was who and what side they were fighting for, except, of course, for the principals.

I read this book in my favourite reading place, a chair with an ottoman, between two The Goldfinchwindows, the fireplace close enough that I can feel the heat on a damp day.  I plough through my French novels there, too, often with a big dictionary open on my lap.  Other books I save for lunch.  It’s a habit I developed when I was young and could get away with it, pouring over a book propped on the table somehow, with a salt shaker or a spoon or a heavy cloth napkin to anchor an open page.  Bad or good, it’s a habit I passed on to my older daughter, so that after she stayed with my sister once, when I was out of town, my sister reported that Elisabeth had set the table with plates and cutlery and a book.  Mealtimes and bedtimes work best for me with novels, or short stories I find in magazines, like The New Yorker.  At night I need a Charles the Boldcompelling story to keep me awake for awhile.  When I was younger, a book might keep me up long past my usual bedtime. We’ve probably all enjoyed that experience, looking at the clock, promising ourselves that we’ll turn out the light after just one more chapter.  This last happened with a book you hear about everywhere this season, The Gold Finch. Donna Tartt knows how to tell a compelling story.  So does Yves Beauchemin, whose Charles the Bold has been coming to bed with me for the last couple of nights.

As for summer or beach reading, I don’t think we have to accept that only light readingThe Idiot works.  I read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot on a beach in Vancouver one summer.  Except for turning this way and that, to try and get comfortable on the sand, I was engrossed.  This was a novel that Dostoyevsky published in episodes in The Russian Messenger.  Maybe the obligation to keep his readers wanting more accounts for the forward movement of the story.  Or maybe I was stuck on the sympathetic main character Prince Myshkin, or maybe it was the lightness of the season itself that mitigated the Russian heaviness.  I don’t know.  But I loved it.

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