Summer in the park with ... a good book

The Monitor goes back to Central Park for another glimpse at what New Yorkers - and visitors - are reading

In midtown Manhattan, traffic is stalled, pedestrians are crumpled and limp, and the only occasional hint of cool breeze comes from an air-conditioned appliance store.

But head straight up Fifth Avenue toward that tantalizing patch of green, and suddenly you're in Central Park. Haze and humidity hang heavy over the park as well, but inside its borders, the cool and calm of leafy trees and well-positioned ponds work their charms. Every living thing in the park - from the sea lions lolling in the zoo to fishermen angling in the Harlem Meers - seems to have achieved some degree of inner cool.

That's why it should surprise no one to discover that on the hottest of New York's summer days, the city's most celebrated park provides shelter to a veritable army of readers. There is no air conditioning and there is little privacy, but there are acres of green and scores of welcoming benches, rocks, knolls, and other perches, many of them in the shade and within sight of water.

There are also other people - which means the chance to enjoy the solitude of a book while participating in a loosely knit literary community as diverse as the city itself.

"I can't afford Europe this year, so I'm here in the park instead," says Mary Stanton, sitting by a pond as tourists glide past in rowboats. A freelance writer researching the Holocaust, Ms. Stanton is fascinated by "QB VII," a Holocaust courtroom drama by Leon Uris. "I've always liked to read in the park, but I've particularly been cultivating the habit this year," she says. "A writer's life can get very solitary. This is like a minivacation."

Vacation is literally what Geraldine de Spéville is enjoying ,as she lies on her back on a grassy hill reading "A l'autre bout de moi" by Marie Thérèse Humbert, an author from Ms. Spéville's home in the Mauritian Islands. Spéville is spending 10 days visiting New York from Paris, and says Central Park was high on her list of city attractions: "I've seen it in so many films."

Alexander Nikolaev is focusing more on nightlife and dance performances, but the young Russian who currently lives in Sweden is also visiting New York for the first time. He's with fellow members of a Swedish dance company, and wants to see as much of the city as he can. But for now he's stretched out in the park's Sheep Meadow, reading spiritual guru Deepak Chopra, translated into Swedish.

"Being in the park is relaxing," he says. Plus, it's a chance to look at New Yorkers. "There are so many different kinds of people here, It makes you feel you can just be yourself."

For Fred Cash, a day spent reading in the park is a chance to reconnect to his hometown. A bass player who's been away on a long cross-country tour, he's happy to be sitting under a tree within sight of the park's Belvedere Castle, reading Joseph Campbell's "Hero with a Thousand Faces," a nonfiction examination of the hero and the mythological journey.

"I love this park," he says. "This is how I readjust myself to the city. I ride my bike over here and try to find that special spot." A serious reader who's usually into three books at a time, Mr. Cash says his only difficulty is deciding which one to pocket en route to the park. "I have to try to read only one," he says with a laugh.

Irina Aratovaskaia, perched on a hill overlooking the park's skating rink, is having no trouble staying focused on a single volume. She's reading "Your Money or Your Life," a financial guide by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. "This book totally changes your perspective on money. It helps you shed your fears," she says.

Ms. Aratovaskaia just quit her job and is heading back to school for a master's degree in business administration. In addition to enjoying a little free time before school begins, she's thinking hard about her future plans.

A Brooklyn resident, she immigrated from Ukraine 10 years ago, but says she's taken little time to get to know Central Park. "Somehow today I was doing an errand and I just decided to come here and read."

Fred Proekt is savoring a day off from his job as a computer software engineer, and says he landed in the park simply because his dog Matilda was eager to get out and "it was just too hot at home."

He and Matilda are stationed by a small rock behind the Metropolitan Museum, while he pages through Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov," a book Mr. Proekt says he loves to read again and again.

It feels especially great to go to the park after being "holed up in an office all morning," Marie Witcher says, It's lunchtime for Ms. Witcher, and as is her habit in the summer, she slipped out of her office a few blocks away and is sitting near a children's playground, reading the thriller "From the Corner of his Eye" by Dean Koontz. She says the sound of the children playing "makes me think of my daughter."

Leora Horwitz is also enjoying a break from work. A doctor doing her residency at nearby Mt. Sinai Hospital, Ms. Horwitz says she savors the moments she can spend with a book in the park's carefully manicured Conservatory Gardens.

"This is like my secret garden, my special place," she says. Today she's reading a historical novel - "Checkmate" by Scottish author Dorothy Dunnett. But, she says, she'd be happy reading anything: "I like fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and even the milk carton."

For Ernest Weiss, a retired magazine editor who wrote about books, reading has been at the center of most of his life. But recently, he says, sitting on a park bench enjoying a German translation of the novel "Esau" by Meir Shalev, it's been the park itself that has meant most to him.

His wife passed away a year and a half ago, and since that time, an afternoon in the park is more precious than ever. "I love to go out and see people doing things," he says. "It makes me feel part of something. I'm not just at home within myself, alone within my reading."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com.

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