Winter as Reading Season
David Foster Wallace on the necessity of quiet time in order to read.
The Chasseur in the Forest (1814) by Caspar David Friedrich
I have never been a huge fan of winter, especially here in Central Europe, where the sun comes up around 7:30 and goes down around 15:30. Weeks or even months can go by without seeing the sun.
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One thing I do appreciate about the winter, though, is how quiet it can be, especially in nature. The experience of walking in a quiet, snow-covered forest is a unique one and not something that is possible in warmer environments. It is a particular feeling of apartness, of feeling cut off from the wider world and more present in your local surroundings.
Winter is also isolating in the sense that it forces us to spend more time indoors. For most people, that means more screen time. But it doesn’t have to: it can also mean more quiet time for reading.
Mindlessly scrolling TikTok recently, I came across a short clip of David Foster Wallace talking about the importance of having quiet spaces in order to read – and the lack of it in the modern world.
The full quote is below and the full 1.5 hour interview is here. The text has been lightly edited and bold emphasis is mine.
… there's a difference, though, I think, between being mildly bored and but then there's another kind of boredom that I think you're talking about which is…reading, reading requires sitting alone, by yourself, in a quiet room.
I have friends, intelligent friends, who don't like to read because they get – it's not just bored – there's an almost dread that comes up here about having to be alone and having to be quiet.
When you walk into most public spaces in America it isn't quiet anymore; they pipe music through. And the music's easy to make fun of 'cause it's usually really horrible music.
But it seems significant that we don't want things to be quiet, ever, anymore. To me, I don't know that I can defend it, but that seems to me to have something to do with when you feel like the purpose of your life is to gratify yourself and get things for yourself and go all the time, there's this other part of you that's…almost hungry for silence and quiet, and thinking really hard about the same thing for maybe half an hour instead of thirty seconds, that doesn't get fed at all.
It makes itself felt in the body in a kind of dread, in here. And I don't know whether that makes a whole lot of sense. But I think it's true that here in the US, every year the culture gets more and more hostile – and I don't mean hostile like angry – just, it becomes more and more difficult to ask people to read, or to look at a piece of art for an hour, or to listen, to listen to a piece of music that's complicated and that takes work to understand, because – particularly now in the computer and Internet culture – everything's so fast, and the faster things go the more we feed that part of ourselves but don't feed the part of ourselves that likes quiet, that can live in quiet, you know, that can live without any kind of stimulation.
If you find yourself despising winter and wishing that the cold and dark would end, try a slight change of perspective. Treat winter as a “hibernation” period of rest and slowing down. Look at a piece of art for an hour or watch an entire opera on YouTube. And make some progress on that stack of books you’ve been meaning to read. Enjoy the quiet.
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