This is the first column in the second round of Reading Room, a biweekly collective column on reading and life. In each round, the four contributors respond to a prompt chosen by the group. The current prompt is: Where do you read?
Two hours before dawn, one Monday morning when I was sixteen, I was thrown out of bed—I mean, really, tossed straight out of bed and onto my feet—by the most violent force I have ever felt. A blind thrust fault had slipped beneath Northridge, a suburb of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley, ten miles from where I slept. I can still remember the sudden wash of dread that always accompanied the first tremor of an earthquake; this was like that, and then more, and then more, and then more. It felt like a giant had picked up our house and was slamming it repeatedly against the ground. I remember the night sky through my bedroom window flashing with distant bursts of light—power lines going down, I now think. I remember, after the shaking stopped, the wail of car alarms and the dim smell of what I would later learn was concrete dust, rising with the morning sun.
We had been told for years to prepare for “The Big One,” a catastrophic earthquake on the San Andreas Fault. During the shaking, I thought, oh god, is this it? As the day unfolded and reports came in over the radio, it seemed clear that no, destructive and deadly as this earthquake had been, it hadn’t been that. We were fine, our house fine. Even so, we were told to prepare for the possibility that what had woken us up was merely a foreshock, that the next 24 hours would bring something bigger, something much worse. Which is why that first night I slept not in my bed but under our dining table. I knew I’d have trouble actually falling asleep, and so I grabbed a book before crawling into my sleeping bag. I must have wanted something familiar. Under the dining table, then, the night after the Northridge earthquake, I reread Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
On ordinary days, I’ll read in all the usual places: a coffee shop, my office, an armchair at home, eventually my bed. Recently, though, I’ve been drifting back to the feeling of that night spent reading under the table. My childhood bedroom—its ceiling, its walls, its various things on its various shelves—had become suddenly dangerous, and so I’d created, under the sturdiest surface I could find, a room within a room. Wallace Stevens once described the force that made poetry possible as “the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality”: what I was attempting under the table felt a bit like that. I remember once seeing an underwater city in a cartoon, a glass dome separating ocean from breathable air. It felt a bit like that, too. Something in that long-ago night’s formal arrangement—a chaotic and inhospitable world looming around me, held at arm’s length for the time being by my own imaginative effort—has returned to me, these days, as the state towards which I incline, as a dream of where to read.
Arrangements like these both inform and warp our experience of time: this is their allure. In The Poetics of Space, his phenomenology of domestic architecture, Gaston Bachelard argues that rooms of all kinds—but especially the minor, discrete “nooks and corridors” of our first homes—organize our memories and are in fact what make it possible, in the first place, for us to conceive of our lives in temporal terms. “Space,” according to Bachelard, “contains compressed time.” To imagine, from where you now sit, a favorite corner of a room you once knew is to encounter again the version of yourself who once inhabited it. Part of what makes a childhood home so meaningful, then, is the way its rooms suspend and compress the various times in which we grew attached to them.
When, moreover, you read in one of these rooms, you make this compression of time intentional and explicit. You summon yet another atmosphere into the room—you mix, say, “the dark and stormy night” of L’Engle’s young adult novel, published in 1962, with a night in 1994 spent anxiously awaiting a second earthquake. And if you are rereading in such a space, then each temporality gives way to still others. You experience not only the time of the novel’s plot but the time you and a friend filmed its opening scene for your sixth-grade class. (I remember my friend’s kitchen, the camcorder we used, the uncanny sound of the novel’s dialogue, when we played the tape back, in our recorded voices.) You feel not only your present night’s unease but the ordinary pleasures of evenings spent sitting around the same dining table beneath which you now lie. If you remember nothing else from the book, you may remember the page on which a “tesseract,” the novel’s eponymous “wrinkle in time” is first explained. Take two distant points on a stretch of fabric and imagine an insect who has to travel from one point to the other. Under ordinary conditions, such a journey would take a long time. And yet, if you were to wrinkle the fabric and draw those points together, then the journey would become instantaneous. A few days ago, with this column in mind, I reread the novel’s opening chapter, and I felt a series of trapdoors give way. I read it lying in bed, on my phone—but also, it seemed, under the dining table, and in my friend’s kitchen, and on the VHS tape that may yet sit on a shelf somewhere in my parents’ house.
If reading can put us in two rooms at once, and if each of those rooms contains its own pocket of compressed time, then to inhabit the rooms simultaneously is to invite the atmosphere of one to mingle with that of the other. Something changes. When I read, for instance, the final words—“And love’s the burning boy”—of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Casabianca,” what I see is the schoolroom in which the child in her poem, burning of embarrassment, tries and fails to recite Felicia Hemans’s “Casabianca.” I also see, however dimly, the deck of the literally burning ship on which Hemans’s poem is set. Finally, as though through the window of the apartment I lived in my senior year of college, I see the snow that fell as I wrote about Bishop’s burning boy for the first time. Another example: When I read the opening lines—“Once you had a secret love: seeing / even his photo, a window is flung open / high in the airless edifice that is you”—of Frank Bidart’s “For an Unwritten Opera,” I see the auditorium where I watched him tear up after he’d finished reading. And yet I also see a marble bench in the hallway outside of the reading room on the third floor of the New York Public Library, where Elizabeth Bishop first met Marianne Moore, and where I once sat with a copy of Bidart’s book, a window flung open high in me. My point isn’t simply that these poems are evocative of the rooms in which I once read them. Rather, I’ve discovered that the rooms have found their way into the poems, taking up residence within and between their lines, providing the light by which they are now legible to me. Snow falls into a schoolroom and onto Bishop’s burning boy. Bidart flings a window open and I find myself blinking into the afternoon light of midtown Manhattan.
Among the ordinary reading rooms that I have not entered now for over two months is my office. Sitting atop a gray metal filing cabinet in that office is a framed broadside of this little poem by John Ashbery:
The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.
We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.
The poem performs a magic trick. Its first line acts as Möbius strip: the speaker claims to have once entered (in his waking life, presumably) a dream version of the room to which he now refers. The room’s contents are simultaneously present and strange (“all those feet on the sofa,” “The oval portrait / of a dog”) and familiar and past (“were mine,” “was me at an early age”). This room is two rooms. It both “shimmers” with numinous possibility and yet keeps its transformative potential “hushed up.” Meals in this room are the humble, repetitive stuff of American childhood (“macaroni”) and the haute cuisine (“a small quail”) of an absurd upper class. Even as the title asserts that the room is singular, the poem’s division into two stanzas (from the Italian for room) suggests the plural. “This Room” is, after all, a wrinkle in time, a poem of old age that draws its own youth near. But the poem is not merely nostalgic. Yes, it grants the adult a temporary view of a childhood once thought lost. But I also want to say (and this is the poem’s uncanny magic) that it has given the child in that room—or a frightened child, say, seeking shelter under a dining table—a view of the adult he will become.
It’s a lonely performance. We realize, in the poem’s last line and a half (“Why do I tell you these things? / You are not even here.”) that what had seemed like the poet’s direct address, his summoning of this doubled room for our attention, had been, all along, mere pretense. He’s been talking to himself. On the Poetry Foundation website you can listen to a recording of Ashbery, who died in 2017, reading the poem. There he reveals that, though he didn’t realize it at the time, he’d written the poem “in response to the death of a very dear friend.” Even the poem’s “you,” in other words, is double: the poet’s dear friend, and you, dear reader, who, as Ashbery writes, “are not even here.” As I now transcribe the words of the poem—and read them again—I find myself both here at home and, at the same time, in another room. I’m in my office, where Ashbery’s poem faces my empty chair, and where it addresses me, and where it addresses no one at all.
Image credit: Mrs. James Ward Thorne. E-8: English Bedroom of the Georgian Period, 1760-75, c. 1937. The Art Institute of Chicago