This is where real reading comes in — because it demands that space, because by drawing us back from the present, it restores time to us in a fundamental way. There is the present-tense experience of reading, but also the chronology of the narrative, as well as of the characters and author, all of whom bear their own relationships to time. There is the fixity of the text, which doesn’t change whether written yesterday or a thousand years ago. St. Augustine composed his “Confessions” in AD 397, but when he details his spiritual upheaval, his attempts to find meaning in the face of transient existence, the immediacy of his longing obliterates the temporal divide. “I cannot seem to feel alive unless I am alert,” Charles Bowden writes in his recent book, “Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 244 pp., $24), “and I cannot feel alert unless I push past the point where I have control.” That is what reading has to offer: a way to eclipse the boundaries, which is a form of giving up control.
Here we have the paradox, since in giving up control we somehow gain it, by being brought in contact with ourselves. “My experience,” William James once observed, “is what I agree to attend to” — a line Winifred Gallagher uses as the epigraph of “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life” (Penguin Press: 244 pp., $25.95). In Gallagher’s analysis, attention is a lens through which to consider not just identity but desire. Who do we want to be, she asks, and how do we go about that process of becoming in a world of endless options, distractions, possibilities?
These are elementary questions, and for me, they cycle back to reading, to the focus it requires. When I was a kid, maybe 12 or 13, my grandmother used to get mad at me for attending family functions with a book. Back then, if I’d had the language for it, I might have argued that the world within the pages was more compelling than the world without; I was reading both to escape and to be engaged. All these years later, I find myself in a not-dissimilar position, in which reading has become an act of meditation, with all of meditation’s attendant difficulty and grace. I sit down. I try to make a place for silence. It’s harder than it used to be, but still, I read.
Read it all.