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On the Where of Reading
It doesn’t matter where one is someone said recently, thinking, reading, working, that happens anywhere. As someone who grew up on the move, quite literally upended at a days notice, I have always thought that is true. You make the best of where you are whether that’s three days in a car, spending the holidays at a motel thrust up like a tent in the middle of nowhere, or in a train station overnight in Lyon.
“Reading in the utopia of airplanes is quite total.” So says Lisa Robertson in “Lastingness,” an essay that discusses, among many other things, reading Lucretius in the British Library. Reading in libraries was once overwhelming to me. I recall walking into the biggest library I had access to as a teenager—the old Vancouver Library, now a record store if I recall on Burrard and Robson—and despairing. How was I going to get through all of these books? Where would I start, and how would I proceed? Reading in such an environment always made me feel as if I were trying to hold back a wave with my hands, the books threatening at any moment to pull me under.
Ours was not a literary house—books were not fetishized as they were for Woolf: “the books gently swelled neath my hand…” We did not have a bookshelf, let alone a library. It took a long while, and a year of working in a college library, to get the lay of the land. I have not, I’m sure, come close to reading all of the books captured even at that moment in the Vancouver Public Library, but I feel less overwhelmed.
I like to read in water, which can be difficult. I used to build rafts out of driftwood and push myself out into the big, deep lakes of my childhood with, I would love to say a book, but the truth is it would normally be a comic book in hand. Fortunately there were no currents and I never got very far because the lakes really were big, deep, and wild—often with nothing or nobody for hundreds of miles around. Occasionally I have been fortunate enough to rent a cottage in the Ottawa Valley and I find the urge for the makeshift vessel as strong as ever. I can bind together a half-dozen pink floating noodles, slap on a low lying lawn chair, grab a book and float. I could take a canoe, but I prefer the provisional nature of the raft.
I’m not such a romantic that I think I need a bucolic setting to work in, but I know there is a relationship between where I am and what I think. The problem is there isn’t a formula. I can’t say I think better on my noodley float, or in the New York Public Library, but I know where I feel better. I have fantasies about certain perfect reading environments. The Seattle Public Library designed by Rem Koolhaas, for instance, what if that was where I read on a daily basis? Would my thoughts be sharper? Would I suddenly be able to read theoretical texts with more ease? Would my notes be more stylized? Would my thoughts rise to the surroundings? Would they be stark, the lines clean, conceptual, without stray words or emotion?
The space of a train or a car, or a café, each with a sense of interiority and movement excite my readerly imagination. I want to be away from my laptop when I read, though now it’s impossible to read without taking notes, and now that we’ve all begun taking notes on our laptops is it possible to read without the screen near by?
Regardless of where or what I am reading, I am acutely aware that the space I am in does have an effect on my thinking and reading, and one assumes, writing. Is this something you have noticed to?