The Silence and Joy of Books

Bench, oak woods, El Escorial
Bench in the Oak Woods, El Escorial

I found myself in a state of total digital overwhelm by the end of Friday night. Working on this blog, swapping back and forth between two Instagram accounts (why, oh why!?), admin tasks for Notes in Spanish, reading endless fascinating links from two newsletters I subscribe, unsubscribe and resubscribe to. My brain was fried.

I ran to our home office, where we rarely work as it’s cold and damp in winter, picked up an armful of books, retreated to the sofa in our living room, and dived in, a snippet here, a paragraph there, and soon felt much, much saner. I mostly found myself engrossed in Echoing Silence, a compilation of writing about the act of writing – letters, articles, autobiography – all written by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

I hold Merton in high esteem. He saw the madness of modern life and went decidedly in the opposite direction, towards the inner life, silence, reading, contemplation, shutting himself up in a Trappist monastery where his superiors, often to his chagrin (he’d wanted to give it up), put him constantly to work as a writer.

Anyway, in this book, there is an interview with a magazine where he’s asked who he is reading, what his most influential books have been and so on. As I love this kind of list, I’m going to copy the interview questions here, but with my own answers, except for one, where I’ll post his answer, because I think it’s great and pretty much mine too.

1. Name the last three books you have read:

The Surrender Experiment – Michael A. Singer (Audiobook) – An interesting autobiography, what happens when you say yes to everything life asks of you, whether your head says you like the idea or not.

Living from a Place of Surrender: The Untethered Soul in Action – Michael A. Singer (Audiobook) – I liked this quite a lot. It takes a little perseverance, but the ideas and techniques it reveals really can make life much, much easier and more enjoyable, and unravel and dissolve troubles from the past that persist in the present.

My Midsummer Morning: Rediscovering a Life of Adventure – Alastair Humphrey – A fun wander through Spain in the footsteps of Laurie Lee.

2. Name the books you are reading now:

The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober: Discovering a Happy, Healthy, Wealthy Alcohol-Free Life (Audiobook) – I’ve had enough of wine, even the small amount I have been drinking in the last few years makes me feel terrible every time. This book is an excellent ally in the decision to give up.

The Art of Noticing – Walker Rob – This book is a joy. Wakes you up to the world around you in all its exquisite detail. The kind of book I’d love to write!

Echoing Silence – Thomas Merton – As mentioned above. He’s a wonderful ally in the confusion, joy, difficulty, and necessity or writing. He rages against it at times but knows it’s infused by magic and very hard to stop.

3. Books you intent to read:

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction – Alan Jacobs – Apparently a book about the joy of reading, and the importance of reading on a whim, for fun, whatever you like, the way we used to read as children, as well as the importance of more ‘serious’ reading of the old and great.

4. Books that have influenced you:

Peace is Every Step – Thich Nhat Hanh – Was a salve to my soul and sent me on many an interesting journey!

Walden – Henry David Thoreau – Simplify, simplify simplify!

The Seven Storey Mountain – Thomas Merton – hooked me for a whole summer holiday, I love autobiography with a spiritual bent…

Gandhi, An Autobiography – The Story of My Experiments With Truth – M.K Gandhi – hooked me for a whole Christmas holiday, hardly moved from the fireside. My wife said it was a dream Christmas, having me so still!

One Robe, One Bowl – The Zen Poetry of Ryokan – rarely leaves my bedside table.

Awareness – Anthony de Mello. A recent find. I love someone who tells it how it is. Wake up, he says, most of this world’s endeavours, your thoughts, and all our ideas of success are insane. Wake up! Wake up!

Zen Battles: Modern Commentary on the Teachings of Master Linji – Thich Nhat Hanh – Complex and inscrutably Zen in parts, I’ve never read it all the way through, but the commentary, which I dip into at random, contains a few sentences that can change your life. I like the original title: Nothing to do, Nowhere to go. Medicine for the soul.

The 4-Hour Workweek – Timothy Ferriss – Funny how this fits in with the other books on this list, but this book gave me tools, and far more importantly, permission, to lead a different kind of stripped-back, free, minimalist working life that I had no idea was either feasible, or, from my education’s point of view, allowable.

5. Why have these books been an influence on you?

This is Merton’s answer, I’ll borrow it for myself, it pretty much sums things up:

“These books and others like them have helped me to discover the real meaning of my life, and have made it possible for me to get out of the confusion and meaninglessness of an existence completely immersed in the needs and passivities fostered by a culture in which sales are everything.”

6. Name a book everyone should read:

It’s A Magical World (Calvin and Hobbes Collection) – Bill Watterson

7. Why this book?

Really, I don’t have a clue what everyone should read. This one is fun, a classic cartoon strip that makes me smile and laugh and remember the best bits of childhood. What is your version of that?

So books saved me from digitally-induced anxiety on Friday night, and I intend to fill my life with them again (they were loosing out for a while to TV series…) You never know when one will crop up that immerses you so deeply and wonderfully that you can’t put it down for a week, and you come out a different person on the other side. And I’ve noticed how much reading books helps me and inspires me to write, which, in my case, is an enjoyable, healthy thing to do.