As a writer whose job it is to read and edit as well as produce verbiage every day, I occasionally find that much of what I peruse gets lost in the abundance of words. When this happens to me, even recognized works of genius, can come across as bland; important articles and books often seem only marginally significant; research with meaningful implications can appear tedious. In our “age of information,” I, like so many others, sometimes fail to appreciate the value of what I read.
This condition, however, is not permanent. I’ve discovered that if I break away from the monotony of my routine and venture into places and experiences beyond the confines of my everyday life, the same material becomes vibrant and magical.
The first time this happened to me I was reading poetry without any understanding or real pleasure as part of a required college literature course. The weekend before an exam I was visiting a friend in Carmel, California, and had toted every student’s nemesis, The Norton Anthology of Poetry. As I sat alone among the cragged Monterey Pines and pungent eucalyptus overlooking the liquid blue expanse of the Pacific, I began to read the ponderous tome in these new surroundings. I found for the first time that the words of Dylan Thomas, Samuel Coleridge, and even Andrew Marvell took on entirely new meanings, made deep impressions, and have stayed with me to this day.
Another instance occurred in an inexpensive posada in Madrid. It was November and raining very hard. Outside on the black streets, fascists were marching and engaged in street fights with the leftists. It was 1977. They were honoring the death of Franco. Walls throughout the city were spray-painted with “20 November 1976,” the day Franco had died. It was unnerving to a travel-weary American. I sat in my strange next to the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked a patio where the women hung the wash. I was reading Jack London’s Sea Wolf by the light of the sooty panes.
It was the second time I had read London’s masterpiece, yet I cannot recall the first. His description of brutality and oppression, the subjugation of the spirit, became vivid and electric in the atmosphere of unchecked fascism. The second reading created a new vision of the work for me and altered my perspective of the events happening around me.
While doing research for a couple of articles on the MX missile in Nevada, I took a motorcycle tour of the Great Basin. I was invited to stay at a friend’s place in Hot Springs Canyon, among the massive tabletop valleys where the Air Force intended to deploy its unpopular nuclear missiles. Hot Springs Canyon is located dead center in Nevada, a long, long way from anywhere. After a ten-hour ride on my bike, the last 20 miles on a dirt road, I found my destination, which turned out to be an isolated, but well-kept trailer, pushed up against the base of an 8,000-foot ridge.
As anyone who has ever taken a serious tour on a motorcycle knows, traveling light is critical for long-term comfort. With this in mind, I had decided not to bring along anything to read, trusting that my friend’s hermitage would be stocked with books, and I was not surprised to find a library of over 500 paperbacks.
It was there that I read J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. Each one was a study of the complexity of human interaction. Salinger’s world of delightful and deadly dialogue is unmatched. His realm of city streets, clinging people, strangers meeting, family banter, children being so adult, and everywhere the value of humanity, stood out in sharp contrast to my aloneness in the stunning vastness of Nevada’s high desert.
I have many other memories of special books read outside of my familiar places. I read John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday and William Kotzwinkle’s The Fan Man in the hospital at Heidelberg University while I was recovering from the removal of a kidney stone; Lawrence Sanders The First Deadly Sin while pretending to fish with kite string, a safety pin, and a walking stick in the creek flowing through Niobrara State Park, Nebraska; and Elias Canetti’s Auto-Da-Fe in a Seattle hotel while worrying why I couldn’t get a job in the Pacific Northwest — all works that impressed me more because of the place where I read them.
Reading in a unique place adds an entirely new aspect to what we read. It gives qualities remarkable and transitory that add much to the experience. I imagine that everyone who writes and reads seriously has had these moments, where work and place come together to create a lifetime recollection. I suspect tat their memories are as fine as my own.
[© Mark Everett Hall; first published in The Writer.]