On the Pleasures of Reading


Few pleasures are as voluptuous as reading a quiet book in the middle of a busy mall.

A lot of this has to do with incongruity. Imagine an activity as indulgent, as sensuous, as decadent and as solitary as the act of reading exceptional literature—and then situate it in the glittering steel and glass heart of a modern mall (crowded, contrived, efficient, mercantile). My experiences of irony are often calculated; this one happened entirely by accident—the result of two business meetings scheduled three hours apart and a laptop whose battery life has been reduced by age to the lifespan of a female mayfly. Bereft of any tool designed to enhance or enable human productivity, I fished out my Muriel Barbery and read.

(In fairness to my post-industrial conditioning with its exhortations to maximizing economic output, I did make every attempt to find a power source for my laptop: including circumnavigating five floors—and even two bathrooms!—in search of a workable outlet. It was only when all possibilities had been exhausted that I’d given in to literary indolence—a surrender executed with the grace of a clear and admittedly smug conscience.)

Of course, the experience could have turned out differently had it been a different type of mall—the sort patronized by bargain hunters or bored students or combinations of both—but this was the kind of mall frequented by business people and corporate execs fed up with monotonous conference rooms and provisioned with far too many HSBC-credit-card-sponsored Starbucks beverage vouchers. In short, in spite of the fact that it was the relative middle of a busy day in the relative middle of a busy week, the mall was surprisingly tranquil and I could sit in plush comfort and concentrate on Barbery’s remarkable prose. (Her book has gone on to exceed whatever positive impressions it had left on me initially—I can only emphatically say: read The Elegance of the Hedgehog—in the middle of traffic if necessary.)

So it was understandably with some regret and considerable reluctance that I put the book down when the alarm for my next appointment sounded. The price to pay for a voluptuous pleasure is its (always) premature cessation—but as Barbery’s book reminds her readers time and again, for pleasure (and happiness, and joy, and beauty) to even exist is already a miracle. So what else is there left to do if not marvel and give thanks?

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