In general, my daily commute is one of the best parts of my life in Amsterdam. Starting the day with a flat, easy, lovely bike ride (and a ferry!) is good for my health, both mental and physical. The only downside – other than the near-constant head wind – is that I’ve lost some significant reading time. In Boston, at least when I took the T, I had a good 40-60 minutes to read, each way. Here, I’m normally biking. When I do take the bus, the ride is only about 10 minutes, and it hardly seems worth lugging a book or my e-reader for those few minutes.
It’s only recently that I’ve made time to read more consistently, sometimes on the terrace if the weather is good, or in the evenings. My flights back and forth to the U.S. were reading-rich, and I think the trains in the Netherlands might have been made for reading. I finally finished a book by a famous Dutch author that took months to get through, and then I dipped into some non-fiction about Haiti before returning to fiction, to a wonderful debut novel that is still unfolding.
In the middle of all this new reading, I had an experience to which most serious readers will relate. One of my favorite authors is Michael Ondaatje – I can now properly pronounce his Dutch-influenced last name! – and The English Patient is on my short list of all-time favorite books. If you’ve only seen the movie, all I can say is: the book is better. (Just out of curiosity I did a little Google research, and wow! the folks on Goodreads do not agree with me. I’m honestly surprised by how many people hate this book…)
My paperback copy of The English Patient was purchased and first read in Canada during The Worst Vacation Ever (a story for another time). My copy predates the movie, so it doesn’t have the awful promotional movie cover. My copy is underlined, dog-eared, and well-loved. Ondaatje is a poet first, then a novelist, and his prose can be heart-breakingly beautiful.
I tried very hard to explain to my (non-reader) husband why I needed – needed – to bring The English Patient with me to Amsterdam. A waste of the limited space and weight in my suitcase, I was told. So it got packed away with Midnight’s Children and Cry, the Beloved Country and other books I love. At least it has good company.
And then. This week, something from the end of the book came to mind. It was an incomplete thought, a fragment – maybe just a memory of how a few barely remembered lines once made me feel. And I HAD TO read it again. Not the whole book (yet), but I had to find those lines.
At such times, e-readers are a miracle. A few moments, a few dollars, and the book was mine to have, if not to hold.
It is so satisfying to flip through the pages of an actual book. Doing so, you can find the phrases and passages that you know by heart; you can seek them out like lost friends in a crowd. Sliding the bar on an electronic page-finder doesn’t have the same effect. Still, with little effort I found what I was looking for. Reading those closing lines again was a balm; even on their own, without the power of the two hundred-some pages that precede them, they moved me.
A day or so after my longing for Ondaatje, I came across an article stating that readers are “scientifically the best people to fall in love with”. While I’m not sure about that claim, there were some interesting links to research about deep reading, and studies indicating that readers of fiction have more empathy and a more developed “theory of mind” than non-readers.
All I know is that my reading habit has introduced me to places and people I could never have imagined knowing; to ways of thinking and seeing the world that have made my life richer and fuller. It is a gift to be able to revisit those well-loved places, to know that they’re there, waiting for my return.