Raised on reading


My friends know that I read constantly, obsessively perhaps. A book is in my purse in case I have five minutes free before my friend arrives for lunch, or the dental assistant calls me back to her chair. Books are hidden in nooks, occupy the fourteen foot high wall space along the length of my living, dining, kitchen space in our condo. They tumble out on tables, are stacked on the floor and tucked into drawers of my bedside table. They range from Dickens to the latest Toni Morrison novel Home, from the biographies of W.E.B. Du Bois to the beautiful work of history called The Warmth of Other Sons by Angela Wilkerson.

The preceding paragraph is not to tell you, readers, that I am more worthy for the reading of books, or that it is the wisest use of time or money. It is to say I was raised with language, by a mother who lost herself in books, talked about them, withdrew into them. I was brought up by a father, a writer himself, who had stacks of books about Winston Churchill or Civil War history, his two great interests, by bedside for reading after working long hours at Chance Vought Aircraft, an hour and a half away from where we lived in Connecticut. It could be the subject of another essay to explore the benefits and losses when one spends hours in a book. Rather, my description of sixty-five years of reading is to say that when I recommend a book it stands out, is something I believe might make a real difference in the way we live our lives. The books and authors mentioned above feel that way to me. The book that has captured me now, a book I am rereading after putting it down two weeks ago has so moved me that I want to spend this June day mentioning it to you.

It is called World Enough and Time, by Christian McEwen. She is a poet who grew up in Scotland before she moved to the United States to teach in various places, including the New School in New York. It is indeed a book about time, and how we speed up our lives to the point where we miss whole realms of experience. McEwen fills it with quotes from poets and writers and scientists, doctors, psychologists and thinkers. She surrounds all this with her memories of a childhood spent on the moors of Scotland, by the ocean on the Scottish isles, in cottages and later in apartments, shacks and farmhouses.

A few of her chapter titles give you a sense of the book:  “Hurry Sickness,”  “In Praise of Walking” The Art of Looking”,  “Learning to Pause” to name a few.  For each chapter she includes poems, findings, observations, ideas and memoir. It is not a how-to-live-a-better-life-in-five-easy-steps book. It is not a book that insists we quit our job and search for our bliss; it does not advocate any formula for how to  attain our dreams. I often don’t like those books myself as they feel unrealistic in their assumptions of privilege: that we can quit our jobs, disregard money worries and have unlimited time to explore. 

McEwen’s book took me to a place that felt familiar and right. She has collected words and verses, quotes and memoir that wrap around experience, echo her ideas, make me pause. I found myself wanting to slow my breathing, my pace, in the smallest of ways. This response is rare for a book like this: to trust the writer to lead me through all that she has collected, and mused over herself, to where I can take it in.

Some quotes from disparate parts of the book reveal her breadth of understanding;

Computer ‘memory’ is literal and predictable; it does not alter over time.  Human memory is considerably more fluid. We need time to muse and  dream, to mull to ruminate, to sort through our own insights and associations. In the words of the philosopher William James,  The connecting  is the thinking.

We need, wherever possible, ‘a space between’, a gap between ourselves and our technology, in which we can quite literally recover our core selves.

“The spirit by its very nature is slow.” Carl Honore

Mc Ewen finds this quote by Jimmy Santiago Baca, written about a time he was in prison and found a classic poet, reading his book under covers at night:

Slowly I enunciated the words…p-o-n-d, r-i-p-p-l-e…Even as I tried to convince myself that I was merely curious I became so absorbed in how the sounds created music in me, and happiness, I forgot where I was….. I stumblingly repeated the author’s name as I fell asleep, saying it over and over in the dark: Words-worth. (quoted from Adrienne Rich’s book, What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Poetry/Politics )

Maybe this book is ultimately about reading and listening, about stories and conversation: all things I was brought up to respect. Maybe McEwen is simply taking me, taking her readers, back into our true selves, whether we love the lake, the land, the city at night or the time when our child naps and we can listen to music. She does not tell us to read books; she tells us to stop long enough to choose how to spend the time we have in this world. No writer before this one has convinced me of such a choice, has encouraged the desire I have to retreat when possible, without guilt or shame. If a book can transport us, if a writer, in her joy and simplicity, in her care at making connections, can move us to rethink our how we want to relate to the world around us, then we are blessed. The way poets ask us to slow down, to reread, to enunciate words in prison, or the way teachers push students to write first thoughts that come directly from their neighborhood, their lived experience, is the way McEwen connects to her readers.  She gathers her love of language and food, music and dreams, mountains and city streets into one space and shows us how to create such a space for ourselves.

Even if you have not read obsessively as I have, or not explored poetry at all; even if you only have fifteen minutes before sleep overtakes you at night, kids in bed, lunches ready for tomorrow’s school day, this book is worth your time. It will bless the accumulated, slow moments you have.

In my space, with its sky high volumes, its pile of donated books for libraries, its books to lend, to exchange, World Enough and Time occupies a place of honor, next to the bed, carried down to my desk and back up to bed, there to reach for. It is a wonderful work of art that turns our head, causes us to see our life from a new angle, a new perspective and to love that life for all that it is.