The reading life seems to encompass two (seemingly) contradictory states of mind. There is the mindfulness required of any serious reader, a focus that demands quiet, solitude and attention, a “shutting-out” of distracting sensory impressions. You read in a sunny room. You’re distanced from noise and from the press of the telephone, fax, email, apart from your spouse and children. Wendy Lesser says, “Nothing takes you out of yourself the way a good book does…” though she hastens to add, “…but at the same time nothing makes you more aware of yourself as a solitary creature, possessing your own particular tastes, memories, associations and beliefs.” A mind ablaze amid the burning embers of the past and future, the regret and anxiety common to what the Buddhist tradition calls the “monkey mind”—a consciousness riotously possessed by chains of associations, thoughts, angers and desire, is a mind unable to read. Probably it takes time to settle into the book. You wander away from the page toward the asshole that cut you off in traffic at the intersection, the finger he guiltily flipped you to make up for the insult to his rudeness when you honked angrily. There are those phone calls you should have made. You wonder, for an instant, why you didn’t speak to that beautiful Irish girl in a pub on Shepherd’s Bush all those years ago, thinking that if you had, the many nights you spent alone, huddled and cold in a bedsitter on St. George Square in West London, might have been, instead, beautiful evenings along the Thames, hand in hand with the soulful, passionate, and erotically charged woman who had become your loving wife. Pretty soon, though, there is the dappled sun or the snowy half-light on a wintry evening, or the sighing of the cottonwoods in a big wind, and only the page and whatever is left of your self.

In “Reading Life: Books for the Ages”, Sven Birkerts talks about the nature of inwardness and the art of reading. “For any devoted reader”, he says, “the act is deeply, complexly bound up with inwardness—with consciousness, sensibility, with whatever noun we choose to designate the murmur of awareness that accompanies us—and carries us—from first waking to sleep again. The words we read, the impressions, the narratives, the conversations and thoughts of characters, not only touch our private sense of ourselves, but merge with it, shaping and directing it.” Readers for pleasure, readers who pick up a book because it validates their values, heightens their sense of grievance or gratifies their longings or justifies their political dogmas or entrenches their fantasies and desires or patronizes their longings and angers or demonizes their enemies or renders their medical conditions more tolerable or promotes their business interests or tells them how to get rich quick or find love or write for fun and profit, or a million other self-interests—those readers are outside the reading life. A book, for those many readers is a TV, a tool, a project and a diversion.

And then, aside from the mindful rest of the reading life is the sense of alienation and apartness that any serious reader senses every day. Again, from Birkerts: “Solitary self-consciousness, the experience of distance, the stress of being angled to the world, as well as the cottony solace of alienation—all these are part of the predisposition that leads to reading. But there is also the craving for whatever is not supplied by our worldly interactions, an intuition of other alignments, other scales of mattering…” Say so long to the asshole at the intersection; bid farewell to the pundits on Fox, the roaring ambitions at the crux of your career; adios to the dark-haired Irish girl you didn’t speak to at that pub in Shepherd’s Bush all those years ago.

And so it seems that the reading life is a duality. There is the tranquil act itself, a mindful disappearing from the everyday world and its hustle to get and have and conquer and provide and justify and remember and forget and regret and fear; yet, there is the unerring and steady bead of self-consciousness that remains, a tiny speck of radium glowing inside the reader that, despite the sunny room or the wintry half-light or the sighing of the cottonwoods and the deep pleasure of the book, illuminates a self that is alienated and will remain forever so.

This, to me, is the deepest psychological structure of the reading life: withdrawn and mindful focus that leads to relaxation and fulfillment coupled with an abiding alienation that is as restless as dappled sunlight and as untamed as wind in the cottonwood tree. Do you want a metaphor? OK. Running a horse you’ve never ridden before across broken country.