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The Middle Ages: Books, books, books ... but never the right spot to really enjoy them to the max

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Where do you read in a noisy house full of burps and gurgles? Someplace out of the way, with natural light.
(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

I needed to curl up with a good nook. And not just any nook.

I was after a comfortable place to read at home, with gentle light, proper padding and a place to rest my tired wheels. Maybe some coffee nearby, and Brahms, played at a whisper.

Basically, what I wanted was a reading womb.

I had tried reading in a dozen places in our home, mostly by the windows that look out on the olive trees in the back, silver as the autumn moon. They are really the only reason we bought the house. I saw in the olive trees an oasis from the SoCal heat and a fence to blot out nosy neighbors.

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So the trees provide handsome protection, and books are birthed from trees. It seemed “of a piece” to read in their presence.

But the couch wasn’t right — too short — and the main TV in the house was too close, always drawing a crowd for the next episode of “The Bachelor” or some other feckless show that heralds the end of enlightened thought and basic decency.

Instead, I sought something cloud-like – cumulus, preferably – or a figurative bed of clover. Maybe throw pillows in front of the fireplace would work, kind of cozy, with a blanket. Since the fireplace is in the swirling vortex of the house, noise and dogs became an issue. It was also too far from the windows or even a decent lamp.

“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul,” said Joyce Carol Oates.

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Yeah, so easy, Oates.

A modern American home is so full of beeps, burps, gurgles and barfs. A valve in the fridge opens and the ice maker fills. The hydro-efficient dishwasher slushes for hours. When the new washing machine finishes, it brags with a little song, but digitized so it’s not really musical at all … an awful robotic retch.

For a while I was convinced that the bedroom would work, removed as it is from the gurgles of the home’s core. I bought an adjustable reading light but found that if I went in after 9 p.m., I would go down like a boxer in the first round. Boom, a knockout in 20 seconds.

This went on for years, this search for a literary hideaway. You see, I am simply a “book drunkard,” in the words of author L.M. Montgomery. I couldn’t not read.

I confess to often having three books going at once, a character trait I am not proud of — seems promiscuous. But as with listening to music, I bounce around depending on my mood at the moment. And I don’t apologize for not finishing indulgent, long-winded authors. That’s on them, not me.

Then there are the magazines. I love good magazine writing, and the New Yorker, Esquire and Sports Illustrated still provide some of the best writing in America, nervy authors whose writing has bounce and verve. In fact, the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane may be my favorite living writer.

And papers, of course. Forever the weekend newspapers, scattered everywhere.

Yet without the right spot, I’d toss and turn while I read, never quite comfortable, like a guy waiting in the chair for his slightly sadistic dentist.

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Finally, after years of searching, I found my nook.

We were about to throw a party, and a nice, padded chair was right in the center of the floor. I shoved it in the corner to get it out of the way. “Ah-haaaaa!” in the words of all great inventors.

The way Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call, that’s how I discovered this ideal reading nook — by accident, like my education, like my career, like nearly every significant achievement in my utterly ridiculous and wonderful life.

I’m now back by the windows, looking out on my cherished backyard, where the April pollen is falling like snowflakes and there is a green, nutritive glow to the wild grasses that grow long and flowing in the ravine.

Hugged by windows, embraced by the sun, my reading nook offers so many comforts and all the intangibles that go into a perfect reading experience.

And a spot to slip into someone’s soul.

Erskine will appear at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books next weekend at 3:40 p.m. April 13 for a panel on metro columnists, including The Times’ Steve Lopez and Robin Abcarian, and at 1 p.m. April 14 for a session on essays and memoirs. Tickets are free but required for the Sunday appearance. He will be signing copies of “Daditude,” his collection of columns, before each event, at booth 103.

Chris.Erskine@latimes.com

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Twitter: @erskinetimes


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