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An armload of ideas I'd forgotten I had

A friend and I were having dinner the other night in a bookshop. I suppose that needs explaining. It was one of those places with corner tables where patrons, over quiche or curried shrimp, can thumb through a book they just plucked from the shelf -- or, stimulated by the proximity of so many words, they can let their conversations rise to brisk and liberal heights.

Our conversation, less noble, turned to vacations, and where we would go, and what we would take to read; and we both admitted that, every holiday, we each took far more books than we could possibly get through. ''It's like Charlie Brown in Peanuts,'' my friend lamented. ''Every fall Lucy promises to hold the football properly, and every fall he believes her and goes to kick it and falls flat on his back as she snatches it away. Always the sucker.''

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He's right. I suppose book-lovers are always suckers -- always imagining that the week away will be full of rain, always dreading the prospect of having nothing good to read, always carrying too-heavy libraries on too-short trips. I can recall innumerable greetings at airports when, among suitcases and hellos, the inevitable ''Here, let me give you a hand'' was followed by ''What on earth . . . ?'' To which I would have to mumble, ''Oh, just a few books.''

Part of it, I suppose, is that books take on a flavor from the surroundings in which they are read -- so that one almost unwittingly chooses books appropriate to the setting. Most literary critics don't care to admit that, of course. They prefer to think that what matters is the author's words alone, sterilized of all such impurities as the weather on the day you read them or what you had for lunch. The finely tuned, machinelike reader may be beyond such things as fog and sandwiches; but most of us aren't. Nor are we immune to place. I find I'm much more tolerant of, say, a local history when I'm off in the country, and of a tightly printed, two-columns-to-the-page encyclopedia on a bare table under stern light.

Some of my fondest memories, in fact, are of the places in which I read certain books. I once read Walden on a cabin porch overlooking a lake in Indian summer, and loved it. An acquaintance read it about the same time in the Princeton library, and found it lacked profundity. Intellectually, no doubt, he was right; but I had more fun. And I still remember interrupting Conrad's Victory with walks through the hot, palmy jungle growth that edged a Florida beach; reading Frost's poems under a desk lamp shining on the New England snow outside the window; and once, in the midst of Joyce's Ulysses, taking a four-mile walk through Manhattan and marveling at the vastness and significance of all that intertwined life.

Last year, however, after having spent what seemed like months of nothing but reading, I decided I needed a genuine change. So when the family packed up for a week at a friend's house on Alderney, I went without a single leisure book in my bag. Instead, I took a sketch pad; and, as I am a frightfully inept sketcher , laboring hugely to produce the most contrived and disproportionate things, I found I didn't make much use of it. Instead, I had a great deal of time simply to walk, or talk, or think.

And I learned, on that island, that so much of my earlier habit of carting about numerous tomes was based on two kinds of fear. It was, first, a fear of boredom -- which, in the last analysis, is a fear of oneself. To be afraid of being bookless is to believe that ideas come only to others, and that, at a crucial moment, you will be empty, dull, alone. But where is the individual who , if he has ever read anything worthwhile, has not got enough of the raw material of profundity within him to last a week? Where is the reader who, having even the slightest creative urge, has not got enough perception to juxtapose what he sees about him with what he has already read, and so build from that new insights? Yet how is the individual to discover that unless, for a brief and brave moment, he turns away from books?

But there is, I think, an even deeper fear, common to all whose formal education has drilled into them the merits of discipline. It is a fear of wasting time. I remember thinking, in those student days when my life was charted by reading lists, that I was hacking my way into veritable forests of books -- and that the more of them I reduced to already-read stumps, the more I saw the immensity of the woods around me. To be well read, it seemed, was the goal -- not, as I now see, to be a sensitive and interested reader. I suppose only now am I overcoming the feeling that books are not so much things for reading as things one ought to have read.

Had I known then what I have since discovered, I might have enjoyed a good book on Alderney. For reading, done gently and fearlessly, is like affection: the more you exercise it, the more it grows.

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This year, I'll take a book on our holidays. But just one. So what if it rains?

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