I finally recall those nights I spent as a kid, sneaking in one last chapter of Roald Dahl under the duvet when I was supposed to be sleeping. I remember the day C and I ordered in lunch and dinner on the same day, because we could not put down Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, even to make a sandwich. We sat at opposite ends of the couch, her twenty pages ahead of me and trying not to gasp and sigh too loudly, lest she give anything away too soon. Packing books for my move to Africa, I picked up my late grandfather’s beaten copy of Sons and Lovers from the basement bookshelf, and the beauty of D.H. Lawrence’s words left me stunned and afraid. Before and in between the textbooks and highlighters, laptops and essays, CVs and failed applications, elephants and food orders, there were these books that I read because I wanted to read them. There were the moments I detected some sense of shared emotion and experience on the pages in front of me. There was the rush to record lines I was certain I would want to return to later, when the words had faded from memory, but the impact of the story and its passages remained.
In a whirl of total naivety, I sent an entire bag of books to Botswana, believing that I would spend hours a day reading. If I could give my past-self some travel advice, I would tell her to save the shipping costs. Since moving here last November I have not read a single book from beginning to end. By the time I trudged into my house at the end of the day all I wanted to do was sleep or watch TV. When I did pick up a book, I fought the urge to close my eyes after a few pages. All the books I carefully selected for life in the wilderness gathered dust, and after a few months most of them were locked away in my trunk. I kept a small collection on my bedside table, but they served a largely decorative purpose. At least this tent looked like it belonged to someone who read, and not like the tent of a girl who could barely get through her exercise video, let alone finish a novel.
Then I found myself on the beach in Mozambique, book in hand. It was a book I had started over four months ago and had been unable to finish, until now. When it was done, I moved on to my Kindle. In predictable fashion, I had purchased at least 20 books when I received it, but had not read more than a page or two. Suddenly I found myself unable to stop. I kept the Kindle with me at all times. I carried it to the table for breakfast, to the beach, to dinner, to the bedroom and back. I read it while I waited for Pina Colada’s at the Casbah Beach Bar; I read it while fresh calamari was sizzling on the stove; I read it lounging under the hot sun; I read it on the airplane, oblivious to the fact that I was severely afraid of flying. I was slightly anti-social at times, and I was moved to tears more than once. It was perfect.
This holiday was wonderful for so many reasons. I was with good friends. Despite my professed fear of any food served with eyeballs still intact, I tried my first prawn dipped in delicious hot butter and proceeded to eat more prawns, order a second plate of prawns, and continue to eat prawns nearly every day. I touched the sand and floated in an ocean clear as glass. I learned to play poker and instituted a no-morning alarm rule. Work was finally a little farther away. There were discussions about timelines and careers and homesickness, but most hours were happily spent laughing and playing, with stomachs full and skin a little sunburned. With the trip winding to a close, I read more voraciously, trying to soak up every minute of indulgent bliss.
Living here involves a degree of isolation from friends and family that is not always easy to accept. I faced the return to work with trepidation, half disappointed when I saw my name on the flight schedule to travel to camp. Walking back into my empty, squirrel tousled tent yesterday, I was relieved to recognize the four walls and tin roof as home, however remote and lonely it might appear to the outsider, and to myself on difficult days. I placed the Kindle on the dusty stack of unread books next to the bed and wondered what had changed. Something has undoubtedly altered, perhaps in my outlook on this strange existence, but I am not yet able to pinpoint it. For now, pages are beckoning with greater urgency – the blank ones I hope to fill and the bound ones that have welcomed me back like an old friend met after a lengthy absence.
Holiday Reading List:
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
The History of History, Ida Hattemer-Higgins
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery
The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides
I am currently reading The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. The desire to choose sleep and TV series over books is fast returning, but I will not judge myself too harshly this time around.