Night reader

I read through the night again last night. After midnight the tight little creases of the workaday self go slack. Slipping on an alter ego -- some character at work on his own destiny -- is as comfortable as slipping into the old jeans and sweat shirt.

I was reading Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy. I was no mere 20th-Century ponderer. I defended the very future of England; I tutored the High King. In my crystal cave the fire showed me the long stretch of the future, because at dawn we would ride -- Arthur and I -- to rout the enemies of united Britain.

"Escape reading?" Not really. I welcome the return to my world as much as the escape from it. I know that in the morning the desk at the office will look more like the ancient stone slab in Merlin's cave than a Steelcase beige executive ensemble. And the view just beyond the parking garage? That haze comes from demon dragons trying to evade Ged, Ursula LeGuin's Wizard of Earth-Sea.m If crossing the fine line between reality and truth is escape, then so be it.

Night reading transforms daylight routine. And it's no Walter Mitty transformation, either. A night following Merlin's exploits does resurrect a feeling that stuffed in there among the memos in the "IN" box could be startling drama.

For example, you go through the cafeteria line, reach for the third tuna fish sandwich -- hold the lettuce -- you've eaten this week. You find a friend sitting next to the window overlooking the alley. He says, "You won't believe what the boss asked me to do today." Now ordinarily you would just respond with a tuna fish sandwich-level retort.

However, after a night with a wizard, you see before you not your old friend from the third floor advertising department, but the young Arthur confiding in Merlin while they eat a wild fowl stew. The possibilities for getting his assignment done are fraught with nobility. So you say, "Look, the way to tackle this campaign is to do what Merlin did when he had to sell Arthur as the true heir of the throne of Britain."

At least, you have his attention.

Because they have this power over the day, works for night reading should be chosen with care. For example, there was the dark and stormy night when I read Hermann Hesse's Demian.m For the next few days I was looking behind doors, into closets, and closely questioning the intents of my colleagues. That book is for a sunny Saturday afternoon. When I am looking for night reading, I go into bookstores the way I used to go to high school dances -- looking for Prince Charming. In this kind of search, bookstores are much more reliable than dances.

Princes and magicians hold no exclusive reign over night reading, however. I have trekked the Kalahari Desert with Francois Joubert, Laurens van der Post's young South African caught in the storm of his national dilemma. In the desert's unblinking whiteness a bushman helped Francois and me to "go slowly over the stones," to try the little man's unhurried pace even in life's dangers. Following Harriet the Spym on her neighborhood rounds, I snooped in her secret journal. Louise Fitzhugh's child spy showed me the clever and the tender side of humor. Frank Herbert's Dunem messiah exposed the selfless roots of leadership. I followed his path across a bizarre desert planet more easily than I could extract truth from a management journal.

If I were to commission my own night reading, I'd ask for problems as serious as those Van der Post sets up in A Story Like the Wind,m a landscape as vast as those in Dunem a time span as immense as the centuries of Isaac Asimov's The Foundation Trilogy,m love as tender and forgiving as love between interstellar aliens in LeGuin's The Word for World is Forest,m and a narrator as straight-shooting as Huck Finn.

Night reading has a firm code of ethics. You must meet the characters on their own turf. If there is anything that squelches good night reading, it's a heightened sense of the impossible. The books, of course, may be as documentary or as fantastic as they will. You, on the other hand, must willingly, as Coleridge explains, suspend your disbelief.

Reading late is a long conversation with a good friend. Gates are left open that schedules usually slam shut. There are no fences between you and the books. It matters to them how they tread in your garden and it must matter to you how you approach theirs. When you talk with them you must count time as they do by the faster-than- light speed of the mind, not by the drag of the clock. Between start and finish, you spend years in each other's company. Such lingering is an art lost on the daylight crowd.

At night the dark softens the hard edges of practicality. The high-intensity reading light throws your room into a Macbethian party of shadows. You are there in that other world. You and the character meld; your feelings and instincts are one.

What's this? It's 7 a.m. You've got a presentation to make at 9. Well, Huck , Harriet, Merli n, Francois, what are we going to show the people upstairs?

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