(Editor’s note: This was the first of my published columns, originally written as one of three submissions for the literature columnist position at the Daily Cardinal. It came to me as I was randomly wandering through Library Mall enjoying the nice weather, looking for a third topic for my submissions. I immediately parked myself on a bench and pulled out a laptop, and wrote most of it in a burst of creativity that afternoon. Interestingly enough, I had no idea this was going to get published until I picked up the summer SOAR issue and saw it written there.
I think it holds up well – I approve of many of the phrases I put down, even though it’s clearly more introspective than my other columns. I still agree with everything I’ve written here, and could probably tack on a few more in the future. We’ll save that for a closing column about leaving Madison perhaps.)
Reading outdoors means sun, fresh air and animal friends
Originally published in The Daily Cardinal, Summer 2005
Well, spring has finally reared its head on our Arctic campus, allowing me to write this column sitting on the stairs near Library Mall instead of the fluorescent tomb which is my dorm room. As the black salt/ice combination that blankets the city goes away, students emerge ready for action, able to bike and throw Frisbees once again.
I have also come out ready for action, but – as you may have guessed – that action is reading. Reading outside for me is something close to a religious experience, the chance to get out there and enhance the experience with sunlight and fresh air.
I can’t really think of what it is that makes reading outside such a good experience, but I think a large part of it has to do with the sounds. When you’re inside your reading options are either deadly silent places like empty bedrooms and libraries, or constant chatter zones like cafeterias and lecture halls. When you’re outside you avoid all these extremes, getting a blend of wind and nature that induces an immediate calm.
So where to find this calm on UW-Madison? Bascom Hill might be the obvious choice – with wind blowing through grass and the quiet murmur of people walking by – but it rarely works out long-term since it sacrifices reading comfort. I need lower back support when I’m reading and also a steady source of shade, neither of which is offered on Bascom’s rough slant.
If you want to be on the hill I suggest you stick to one of the trees on the sides, adjusting slightly as the sun moves across the sky. If you can stand the bark grinding into your back it’s a perfect spot to get in a chapter or two before class, and a perfect place to nod off after finishing the book.
Readers who like to have action around them may want to roll down the hill to Library Mall, where the open space and the constant activity make a terrific short-term spot. The sounds of piccolo music and sparrow-filled bushes are mixed with Frisbee games and panhandling student organizations, creating an interesting blend.
Library Mall is the place for social readers, who want to be able to start something else once you’ve finished your reading. There’s something to be said for any place where you can put down a chapter and go get an orange smoothie, a socialist pamphlet or a new book without walking more than fifty feet.
For those periods where I want to stop reading when the book is finished I choose to drift north onto the shores of Lake Mendota. Between the Terrace and Picnic Point there are dozens of rock formations where you can stretch out comfortably, as isolated as a locker in Memorial Library but far more inviting. I don’t think there’s any better background noise or setting for a reading than waves beating against a shore – it’s my personal metronome.
There’s plenty of activity here – not curious students coming to smoke or lost joggers but animal companions. I’ve had squirrels, ducks, chipmunks and robins all drift around my Lakeshore spots, and at one point wound up throwing ants into a nearby spider web. It’s a little jarring at first, but you eventually get used to having a silent audience that – in your mind – appreciates a book’s jokes and plot twists as much as you do.
So get out there – the sun is up and the sky is blue, and there’s no valid excuse not to start turning pages.