On leave from the hustle of the working week, we read calmly and well, writes Miriam Cosic
AS the world becomes busier, noisier, more competitive and demanding on us in every way, the calm adult sense of our responsibilities in life is giving way to a more panicky sense of the sheer exhaustion of getting through the day. Reading can become a bit like mindlessly playing computer games late into the night before an important meeting, a way to pretend none of this is happening, rather than a means of engaging more fully with the world.
Summer holidays, by contrast, allow total immersion in books. Challenging ideas, beautiful words. Poetry, philosophy, politics. Novels that make the world anew. The lapping of water, the white noise of cicadas, the smell of lawns baking in the sun, the enervating heat that defeats the body but somehow clears the mind: these encourage deep thoughts, or sleep.
I remember raiding my friend Giles’s encyclopedic library during a summer on Malta and rereading two books by his pool. The experience of them, barely remembered from the first time around, is indelible.
Giorgio Bassani’s elegiac The Garden of the Finzi-Continis left me sadder than any other book has: the glamour and piquancy of the main part of the narrative slowly overtaken by the gathering beat of horror. It had been easy to take for granted the elegant writing and moral integrity when first reading it in nightly grabs between work and meals and family phone calls.
Having disliked The Unbearable Lightness of Being , my view of Milan Kundera changed when I read Immortality, another novel of nostalgia, as absorbing in its intellectual artifice as Bassani’s was in the unimaginably real. The place — a house in which I could truly relax — and the leisure allowed me a fresh experience of Kundera.
Why do people think of light reading when they think of summer holidays? The insidiousness of mass marketing, perhaps. Light reading is really a weekend necessity, an escapist relief from the demands of the working week. It can be done in interruptible bursts to accommodate an eroded attention span. Fast-paced crime, sex-andshopping romances, quirky satires: they’re mental chewing gum, cheaper than weekly therapy for the overloaded mind.
David Malouf, who writes of Australia with great insight and tenderness, recalls the intensity of reading during the holidays as a child. It was the Christmas break between his 12th and 13th years. His family had taken a house in Southport on the Gold Coast, and he read Wuthering Heights , Jane Eyre , The Hunchback of Notre Dame, William Harrison’s Old Saint Paul’s. He has visual memories of reading on the beach and while lying in bed.
He had been a reader before, he says, but these books chimed with his looming adolescence, with his dawning realisation that a world of passion existed that neither his teachers nor his family had told him about.
‘‘ People talk about first experience, the time you did this or that,’’ Malouf says during a telephone conversation, ‘‘ but you forget that some of the most indelible and life-changing experiences can be in a moment of reading.’’
When he wrote an introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Jane Eyre , Malouf mentioned the ‘‘ strangeness of reading about the gloomy moors on a beach in bright sunshine with the surf behind you’’, as he describes it now.
In February, a hot and debilitatingly humid month in northern Australia, I had a similar disjunction of real and imaginary place. I read Robert Pogue Harrison’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition . His cool prose and even cooler thought processes, his exploration of philosophical and artistic inquiries into the deep symbolism of gardens in the human psyche, extinguished the heat more effectively than the jug of chilled water at my side.
Poet and nature writer Mark Tredinnick’s memory of summer reading is a cool one too. He recalls reading Robert Gray’s poetry, on holiday in Scotland during the young Australians’ traditional rite of passage trip to Europe. It was summer on Skye and the weather was similar to the Sydney winter he’d just left. He was camping and read the book until the daylight faded about 11pm. Something about Gray’s evocation of Australian nature echoed that landscape on the other side of the world.
Gray’s writing, Tredinnick says, taught him about the importance of ‘‘ attending to landscape, to its light and colour’’. As he speaks he spies the book, the very book he carried with him then, on a shelf and opens it. June 1986, he has written in it. The price was $ 7.95.
Geordie Williamson, who writes so elegantly for these pages, had an epiphany when he was just a little younger. It was 1990 and he was living in a tin-roofed boatshed on Sydney harbour. It had wooden floorboards and a window from which he could jump straight into the water at high tide.
‘‘ I had just failed my first year of university and was utterly rudderless, penniless,’’ he recalls. ‘‘ Rich friends lent me the space and I dwelt there, like Nick Carraway at West Egg in The Great Gatsby.
‘‘ Someone gave me a copy of Martin Amis’s London Fields . I suppose I would be disappointed if I read it again, but at the time it was a revelation: potent prose, apocalyptic imaginings, all the stuff an 18-year-old could ask for. I read it on a lawn with growing fascination and finished it with my heart in my mouth. It spoiled trash literature for me; from then on I only read the good stuff.’’
Michelle de Kretser, whose novel The Lost Dog created a stir this year, remembers clearly a novel, prescribed for her HSC in Melbourne, which she read in the holidays before the year started. She still associates summer with L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between .
‘‘ The Edwardian summer described in the novel is integral to its intrigue,’’ she writes in an email. ‘‘ The uncommonly hot weather draws the child narrator, Leo, into an adult drama, and tension between the characters rises as unmercifully as the mercury.’’ Melbourne summers are like that: low in humidity but tremendously, nervily, almost novelistically hot.
Those languid times are when we can read or reread the canon: Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad , Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponne- sian War, Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, all of Jane Austen in one glorious run, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina , the poetry of Hafiz, Anna Akhmatova and Paul Celan. Can you imagine reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism in 20-minute grabs on the bus, with work, the children’s excursion and looming bills in the back of your mind?
Last year, I read two books I wished I’d read more calmly: Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God and Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All . The first had my mind fizzing unstoppably with ideas. The second was so heartbreaking, and so outraged my sense of justice, that I founding myself stopping regularly to wrestle with the desire not to know and the imperative of bearing witness. I re-read them both while on holiday recently, sitting on
Immersion therapy: The pleasure of holiday reading