The solace of holiday reading

From Montaigne to Hillary Clinton to all the rest of us, there's rest, reflection, and wisdom to be found in books.

Denis Poroy/AP Images for American Express/file
Shoppers in a San Diego book store on November 26, 2016.

Shortly after her defeat in this year’s presidential race, as she gave a speech to supporters of the Children’s Defense Fund, Hillary Clinton talked briefly about the solace of reading.

“There have been a few times this past week when all I wanted to do was just to curl up with a good book or our dogs and never leave the house again,” she told listeners. Then Clinton pivoted to some remarks about the importance of staying engaged, even when it’s hard.

It’s a nice sentiment for anyone of any political stripe to consider. Even so, in the upcoming lull between Christmas and New Year’s, I’ll be thinking not of life in the fray, but that other vision Clinton offered – a good book, a dog, a seeming eternity to do nothing but look at a text or a terrier. That prospect, for me, has for years been my favorite part of the holidays. After Christmas has passed but before the New Year arrives, I savor days away from the office without obligation. A stack of books left under the holiday tree makes its way to the coffee table, perched near a mug of coffee or tea. I read, read, read, as Foster, our old mutt, snoozes on my lap. This, I think every yuletide, is what heaven must be like.

The respite of reading seems especially welcome this month, as the world says goodbye to a bitter year. But time with books doesn’t have to be a choice between escape and engagement, as Will Schwalbe reminds readers in his just-published “Books for Living.” Reading isn’t just a pleasant diversion, he argues, but a promising connection to the ideas and values that matter most. “Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in the world of endless connectivity,” he writes. “We can’t interrupt them; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s.”

In this year so defined by division and strife, I’ve found myself thinking about one of history’s greatest readers, the 16th-century Frenchman who invented the personal essay, Michel de Montaigne. An influential figure in the royal government of his time, Montaigne looked at the ugly rifts in his country and decided he’d had enough. He retreated to his estate and holed up in his personal library, where a cat kept him company – a variation on Clinton’s theme of reading and pets.

Watching his cat reminded Montaigne how strange humans are. In books, he found the wisdom to reconnect with the world’s promise. And he learned some things about himself.

“I contain in some fashion every contradiction, as the occasion provides,” he wrote. “Bashful, insolent, chaste, lustful, talkative, silent, clumsy, fastidious, witty, stupid, morose, gay, false, true, wise, foolish, liberal, greedy, prodigal: I see myself somewhat all of this as I turn myself around – and so will everyone if he does the like.”

We’re muddled and messy and complicated in our dealings with each other, Montaigne seems to say, because every individual, even the bibliophile alone with his books, is muddled and messy and complicated, too.

Centuries later, Montaigne’s insights about humanity continue to nudge us towards tolerance, compassion, and good humor. It all started when he left the public stage for a while to spend some time with his books.

That’s all the more reason for us, in these closing days of a stressful year, to sit on the couch – and read.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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