A reflective piece for a Sunday morning. I enjoyed this and I hope that you do too.
By Alexander McCall Smith.
First published on The Herald.
Like many others, I have a pile of books waiting to be read. In fact, now that I come to think of it, I have more than one pile of books. I have one on the bedside table, where most people keep their unread books, but I also have two in my study – one on a chair and another on a table.
I suppose I should also count the temporary pile near the window, but that is the stack waiting to go to the charity shop. That, I fear, may be difficult to reduce in the short term: charity shops are said to be dreading the return of normal opening, as a positive deluge of stored-up donations threatens to engulf them. Barriers have been erected, we are told, and long-suffering staff are steadying themselves to turn away three months’ worth of paperback novels, out-of-date guides to Finland, and Higher English study notes. That, of course, is before they are offered last year’s political memoirs and football biographies.
By strange co-incidence, when our life changed in March and we entered this period of social isolation, I happened to have just completed a reorganisation of the books in the house. This was long overdue, as over the years I had placed books according to what might charitably be called a chronological system. This involved putting the most recently-acquired books in the front and leaving older books at the back. As a result, books on very different subjects sat next to one another on the shelf and the only method of locating them would be visual memory – “I’m sure I saw that book somewhere on that shelf” – or the recollection of when the book came into the house. Neither of these ever worked very well, and as a consequence I came to be the owner of a large number of books that I had forgotten about.
My reorganisation – carried out by a particularly competent person who agreed to take on the task for me – transformed my personal collection. Not only were books shelved according to subject, but within the classifications they were arranged alphabetically, according to author. This meant that now, if I need to find a book on the social practices of baboons, I know exactly where it is. And I do have such a book, as it happens: in fact, I see that I have two. I can also lay my hands on my Dictionary of Australian Slang and Colloquialisms – a very vivid book – or, not far from that on the shelf, my Concise Scots Dictionary. No longer do I have to spend half an hour searching for the biography of King Zog of Albania that I know I possess. There it is, next to the other memoirs of less colourful lives.
As a result of this reorganisation I discovered not a few books I had forgotten about or had never got round to reading. As isolation began, I had embarked on reading one of these recently-surfaced books, which happened to be about monasticism, and what the monastic traditions of sanctuary and quiet can do for us in our increasingly busy world. Or formerly increasingly busy world, because just as I started this book, our world slowed down perceptibly. Traffic noise disappeared; the sky, once criss-crossed by vapour trails, became inhabited only by natural clouds; delicate birdsong filled the air, as if suddenly birds felt they no longer had to shout to make themselves heard. People walked or cycled. They stopped their headlong rush; they paused to take a breath; living in the future was replaced by living now. Time was arrested. It was just the right time to read about monasticism – that curious voluntary withdrawal from the world in pursuit of spirituality.
That book was quickly followed by another on the same subject that I found on my newly-ordered shelves. This was Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence. Leigh Fermor was a remarkable writer, whose books about his famous walk across Europe before the Second World War are justly celebrated. In A Time to Keep Silence he describes visits he made to monasteries in France and elsewhere in the early 1950s. He writes at some length about the implications of suddenly finding time in the day – to read, to meditate, to stay still.
It helped, and it also set the tone for my reading over the next few months of this unusual period. I found that I had no appetite for anything fast-paced or exciting. I found that I wanted to read books where there was a strong authorial voice saying something about what counted in life. In particular, I turned to poetry, and to books about poetry. Reading poetry requires an initial quietness in the mind. When you sit down with a poet, you are being addressed in a way that is intimate and direct: the poetic voice is a very personal one – somebody is talking to you, is saying “listen, this is how I feel”.
Then Zoom came along. Zoom meant that we could see and talk to friends, but it also meant that people could keep book clubs going in spite of not being able to meet others physically. I do not belong to a book club, but I started to have regular virtual meetings with four friends in which we discussed two or three poems for the occasion. One of these friends happens to be a professor of literature and an expert in 19th century poetry. That helped, but the net has been cast wide and we have included contemporary poets in our discussions. At our last meeting, we looked at Thomas Gray’s Elegy (I last read that when I was 16) but we also spent a very happy half hour talking about Edwin Morgan’s King Billy and Iain Crichton Smith’s You Lived in Glasgow. Both of these poems contain beautiful and arresting lines: I have always been struck by Morgan’s haunting opening to the King Billy poem, “Grey over Riddrie the clouds piled up…”
One cannot survive on a diet of poetry, of course, just as one cannot survive exclusively on a diet of biography or architectural history. But I did find myself concentrating on books that ask what one might call profound questions – the sort of questions that we are often too busy to address with the attention they deserve. I learned about subjects I needed to know more about – I had a sense of catching up with myself. I realised I had been too busy, too distracted, to read things I needed to read. These last few months have taught me a lesson. I hope I remember it.