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reading a book

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By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Nedra and I have been in self-quarantine at Indiana University’s retirement community where we settled in November of 2019. The lockdown, if I may call it that, began in mid-March and continues until the President or Governor calls an end to staying at home as a health precaution during the pandemic of 2020. 

I consider myself extroverted and certainly my students think I am extremely extroverted because who else would stand before 500 students and share the pleasures of learning science? As a child, however, I was insecure, terrified of being called on in class, and would hide my head behind the person in front of me so I wouldn’t be called on. 

I like being with people, but I also like times of solitude. I learned to appreciate solitude when I read Michel de Montaigne’s essays. On his estate he had a silo constructed not to store grain but to have his books in a circular library that lined the structure’s lumen. He had his desk and writing supplies and would seclude himself to write his essays and read his treasured collection of books, most of them reflecting the civilizations of Greece and Rome. 

I also appreciated novels about solitude, like Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo and how Edmond Dantès spent his years in prison before his escape. Or Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and how the title character had to reinvent the skills of survival as a shipwrecked sailor. I also enjoyed reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, his journal of his self-imposed solitude in the woods and a lake near his home in Massachusetts.

Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle is another masterpiece of writing during a round-the-world trip using his cramped shipboard quarters as a place to write from his field notes and away from contact with his scientific colleagues and friends in England.  

In February, before we were forced into solitude, we read for our monthly book discussion group Amor Towle’s The Gentleman in Moscow, a novel about a Russian leisure class survivor of the Revolution who was under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel for some 20 years and who managed to fill his life with adventures and the mental treasures of civilization.  

The hard part is not seeing our children and grandchildren except through Zoom or reading their comments on Facebook and seeing pictures they send. The easy part is using the time to write. Since the quarantine I submitted the galleys for a book in production, signed a contract for a second book, and got my editor to agree to look at ten works I had abandoned over the years when I was too busy teaching and doing research to complete novels, scholarly books, and other writings.

I am sending her a summary of each of these ten books and at age 88 I am in a race with the Grim Reaper to see how many of them I can get published before the scythe is swiped. While this sounds morbid, I am a realist and my life is so filled with the pleasures of living and having enjoyed so much mentoring with my students and solitude with my creative works, that I have no fears or terrors of the Reaper winning the race. 

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.