Reading, Revisited


I’ve been given a writing assignment. I like those. Especially when the ability to concentrate is at low ebb. I find myself wandering off lately. Physically wandering off has always been a habit of mine (apologies to everyone who has ever waited for me). Daydreaming, too, is a kind of wandering off (guilty). I mean wandering off mid-thought though. Mid-sentence, even. Nothing sticks in my head for long.

At the bookstore I found Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Or it found me. It’s “the story of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, a 19th century Sicilian nobleman caught in the midst of democracy and revolution.”  Honestly? This description did NOT excite me. It had been so highly praised by a friend though that I thought someday I should read it. I told this to myself repeatedly, the way I remind myself to eat salad. Someday. Now, my writing assignment was to begin: “I went to the bookstore because I wanted to read The Leopard.”  – and it does. But it’s not true and this is not my writing assignment.

I’d gone to the bookstore because I’d gone to the pet store because I was supposed to be grocery shopping. Obviously. I needed escape. The bookstore is almost in sight of the pet store and it is a near perfect place to escape for an hour or two. I rode the escalator just for the view and wandered through the stationery and journals. I looked for Sherwood Anderson’s Poor White, knowing full well they didn’t have it but unable to think what else to want. Walking alone in the woods clears my head so that I can pick out a thought like a string and follow it to its end. It’s productive. Losing myself in a busy bookstore is just that: losing myself. And sometimes I need that, too. Hearing a hundred other voices I’m unable to hear my own. I am free to forget.

The phone in my pocket rang. So much for forgetting. I leaned my head against the shelves and closed my eyes. It occurred to me I must have looked prayerful and so I opened them. There was The Leopard,  directly in front of me. In my head I heard my friend’s voice proclaiming it “absolutely astonishing” and I plucked it off the shelf.

Since Mom died, I haven’t been able to immerse myself in a book. My mind skims over things and refuses to focus. But The Leopard,  lush and lyrical, drew me in. For four days I was in Italy with the Salina family, watching revolution take place on battlefields and in ballrooms. The blurb at the back of the book begins: Set in the 1860s, The Leopard tells the spellbinding story of a decadent, dying Sicilian aristocracy threatened by the approaching forces of democracy and revolution. The dramatic sweep and richness of observation, the seamless intertwining of public and private worlds, and the grasp of human frailty imbue The Leopard with its particular melancholy beauty and power, and place it among the greatest historical novels of our time.

“Absolutely astonishing” is absolutely right. It was good to be engrossed in a book again. Reading, for me, is both the escape of losing myself in a crowd and the clarity of mind I find walking in the woods alone. A dichotomy, and yet there are few more perfect pleasures.