February 25, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Reading is encouraged

By |2018-03-21T20:10:35+01:00August 28th, 2017|"Notebook"|
Who needs Amazon when you can get books and talk food at your local library?

ome days are perfect lake days. The breeze is up. The occasional whitecap dances across the ripples. Clean sheets flap in the wind and I smell the perfume of my white pine. A duck family floats by. Farther down the lake, Moose Mountain forms a backdrop for the white triangles of the sailing school. For an hour, I lie on the dock, warmed to just the right temperature by the sun, and read.

Other days are another kind of lake day. Rain patters on the metal roof. A light a fire and it crackles. The dog lies squarely in front his belly bared to the warmth. Bean soup bubbles on the stove. For an hour, I will lie on the sofa in front of the fireplace and read.

Like any self-employed person or freelancer, I don’t have a boss who authorizes my vacation days or finds someone to cover for me. I don’t risk losing a new client or disappointing an old one if work comes up when I’d planned to take time off. At the same tine, the lack of work doesn’t necessarily feel like a vacation. I start wondering if I should be drumming up new projects. Relaxing gets hard.

For me, summer vacation — or maybe I should say summer vacations, since I take several — is when I successfully shush that inner voice exhorting me to use my time better.

There’s no week or two lazing at the beach, no trip to an exotic clime or luxury resort. It’s just me on the dock or the couch, with a book from my local public library. To me, the 27,050 books, magazines, CDs and audio books in the local library in Enfield, New Hampshire (population 4,600) are as essential as a plane ticket. Amazon may have millions more titles, but neither it nor any other bookstore can compete, and not it’s not just about pricing.

Publishing industry concerns do not sway my library. It ignores press runs or what’s trendy. It still has plenty of out-of-print books. If I get hooked on an author or series, the library usually has the previous titles (and if it doesn’t, there is always InterLibrary Loan.). Amazon’s algorithms only thinks they know my taste enough to make suggestions. Unlike librarians, algorithms can’t comment on the weather, a knitting project, or suggest what to do with the zucchini glut.

I love the full physical book experience, the rite of being attracted by the title on a spine, inspecting the cover, reading the fly leaf and filling a bag of books I can barely carry, which is almost the best part. Reading’s low bar of commitment makes it easy to take risks, which encourages great discoveries. The library is the literary answer to pushing in the bottoms of chocolates to see the filling. With a library, you never get stuck with the book version of a rum crème.

My mini-vacations have a single rule: Reading must be for pleasure alone. No periodicals, which are too close to real life and remind me I should be writing. No reading anything that might inspire home improvement projects. No reading anything “I should.” This means avoiding what everyone else is reading — literary prizewinners — or filling gaps in my education — Proust or “Moby Dick.”

Well-written history, such as Anthony Beevor’s books on World War II, is allowed. Social science, such as writing by biologist Robert Sapolsky or psychologist Martin Seligman is allowed. Good crime fiction, Ian Rankin or this summer’s favorite, Steve Hamilton’s books set in Upper Peninsula Michigan, are definitely allowed. So are clever and funny romances and “women’s reads” set in historical periods I like.

I don’t apologize for my diet of what some call easy “summer-time” books or “formulaic” “genre literature.” On the contrary, as a writer, I admire anyone who creates great characters and plot and an interesting setting. I especially admire those who do it over and over. It is a struggle to produce this column every month, so I know there’s nothing “easy” about writing and that formulas are not shortcuts. Of course I already know the mystery will be solved or the couple will live happily ever after. Getting there is more important than the destination. When an author is good, it’s like watching a magician. Even if you know it is all illusion, you fall for it anyway.

Sometimes I find a book too good to put down. When that happens, I don’t. I let myself be carried away to another world, often for several days.

Isn’t that the definition of a vacation? And it doesn’t cost a cent. Well except for my local taxes.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."