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Monday, January 9, 2012

As dusk fell, just after three, I lit the candles in the front room and settled back down to read.

The illuminations of reading by candlelight
Reading without electricity in a recent power cut actually turned out to add some juice to reading
Candlelight Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Stuart Kelly
guardian.co.uk, Fri 6 Jan 2012 12.13 GMT
We live high up in the hills in the Scottish Borders, so when the lights flickered and then failed this week, we were well prepared. The wood burner was stuffed with logs, a pot of water was put to boil on top of it and I set off for a confab with the neighbours. As dusk fell, just after three, I lit the candles in the front room and settled back down to read.
There were several superficial ways in which it was different from reading normally. For one thing, I didn't end a paragraph and think it would be a good time to check my email. For another, I was always aware that if I moved too carelessly the book and the candle would meet in an intense but short-lived mutual understanding. The phone didn't ring. The ambient hum of freezer and television was stilled. There was no distraction whatsoever. It had a curious and lovely intensity. I had to re-read sentences as the light played, and pause to angle the book and catch the shifting shine. The words themselves seemed less fixed and self-evident, as if you could read the same sentence countless different ways just by tipping the book forwards and back.
It struck me that this was how people had read for almost all of the time that people have been reading: in darkness, slowly, concentrating, and more sensitive to the subtle interplay between what was on the page and what appeared to be on the page. In a sense, this was reading normally; reading with ample, white light was the exception.
Although our power is now restored, I have decided to spend some time each month reading in this older way. We underestimate the ways in which environment conditions reading – a throwaway newspaper on a bus is read in a throwaway, glancing fashion; a beach-read thriller actively encourages its reader to bound over sentences in pursuit of the key revelation; a poem, by sheer virtue of wide margins around it, encourages lingering. Flicking and skimming abounds, and even Booker judges seem bored by things not zipping along.
Having had some encounters with fundamentalists of every stripe and persuasion, I'd recommend that they read their chosen scripture – whether ancient narrative or modern peer-reviewed paper – by candlelight. Too often the adherents of any particular cause or view cite their holy texts as if they were final demands read under the light of magnesium flares. In that kind of light, everything looks black and white. By candlelight, a page is one moment orange and the next magenta, and each word shimmers between sea-grey and midnight-blue.
An e-reader, at any rate one that does not use electrophoretic ink, is therefore the anti-book par excellence: a book from which the light glows out, rather than a book on which illumination might be shed. I have heard people express reservations about e-readers on the grounds of smell, weight, size, capitalist monopoly and battery length, but their shininess and their insistent beaming make them, for me, something radically other than a book. Of course, as Gail Rebuck insists, it's all just about the means of delivery of neurological word-caffeine – except for the fact that it isn't and it never has been.
Reading by candlelight is an experience of strange reverence and an equally strange uncertainty. It is how I would like to read in every kind of light.

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