A blog for everything bookish

Sunday 7 June 2015

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

“It is a tale too slow for the impatience of our age,” Shepherd writes in 1947 and 58 years later it is an observation which couldn’t feel more true, and is astonishing in the way it reminds us that whatever the era the demand for human progress outstrips our sensation of time. Yet this entirely book is about timelessness, about one woman’s brief, if long by human terms, relationship with a mountain range, the Cairngorms of Scotland. It is a slender book, yet somehow packed with wisdom and beauty. It contains a life, a life lived slow and in harmony with an environment which is hazardous and fulfilling simultaneously.

The book doesn’t follow a linear narrative, but rather meanders in a series of connections: chapters on the plateau, on groups of walkers, on the influence of water, frost and snow. As the words flow, you begin to build up a sense of the mountains, their power and structure, their danger and their beauty, the ways in which they can surprise even the seasoned walker, taking lives in a sudden freeze. That Shepherd has a total respect and love for the mountains is apparent, there is a sense that they are the gift that kept giving through the course of her life and the book is her gift to the rest of us, sharing her experience and her observations.

Not surprisingly the subject of silence, a subject which is becoming a favourite of mine, is one which Shepherd covers in some depth. As she explains here, taken from two separate sections:

“The presence of another person does not detract from, but enhances, the silence, if the other is the right sort of hill companion. The perfect hill companion is the one whose identity is for the time being merged into that of the mountains, as you feel your own to be. Then such speech as arises is part of a common life and cannot be alien.”

“Having disciplined mind and body to quiescence, I must discipline them also to activity. The senses must be used. For the ear, the most vital thing that can be listened to here is silence. To bend the ear to silence is to discover how seldom it is there. Always something moves. When the air is quite still, there is always running water; and up here that is a sound one can hardly lose, though on many stony parts of the plateau one is above the watercourses. But now and then comes an hour when the silence is all but absolute, and listening to it one slips out of time.”

This is something I’ve found myself thinking about a great deal recently: the difference between chatter and conversation, how silence can be more companionable than speech. We fill our lives with sound, but fail to hear anything. Shepherd’s words draw it out so clearly. And there’s a reverence to her language, a joy which is quiet and profound. She describes the mountain so beautifully, from her nights sleeping under the stars to the walks swathed in sudden fog, the changes in perspective, the hidden lochs, the people she encounters, the wildlife. It is a stunningly beautiful book which concludes, perhaps not surprisingly, in something approaching a zen Buddhist philosophy, as she describes here:

“It is therefore when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony deepening into something that resembles trance, that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain. I am a manifestation of its total life, as is the starry saxifrage or the white-winged ptarmigan.”

What The Living Mountain offers us is a vision of a life lived slowly, the value of coming to know something so intimately and yet still feel you barely know it at all, the importance of our senses and using them, of loving even the inanimate, of not underestimating, of the experience of being and how fleeting it is and yet how wonderful. And this book is indeed wonderful.

Monday 1 June 2015


As an inveterate book buyer, almost unapologetic, recently released to a book buying spree, I often try to understand what it is that makes me want to acquire more and more books. There is a gulf between buying and reading which is often unbridgeable – meaning, of course, that I buy books which I never quite get around to reading – and as my shelves fill up I find I can no longer ignore the little voice that is telling me I need to clear out some space to make room for my new books and that, perhaps, there are a few books cluttering the decks which I will never read, or for which it is time to let go. This is a dilemma for me. I don’t enjoy letting go, I don’t like to dispose of books I haven’t yet read and those I have I wish to keep on the basis that I would like to read them again. When is a question I might ask myself, but I have been around long enough to know that life is full of mysteries I will never solve and this is another of those questions I have contented myself to ignorance of the answer.  

Then there is the challenge that arises from freeing up the space only to find myself gleefully filling it again with those little bargains, little treasures, found in the secondhand book shop, or the impulse bought firsthand book. Vacant space in my bookcase is space to be filled. Nature abhors a vacuum, someone once said, a sage observation I’ve taken too closely to heart as my rows of books, squeezed like a slovenly woman into last year’s clothes, attest (which might more specifically read: me into my clothes. Sitting and reading is not conducive to slenderness at my age). Having recently, quite diligently, completed a gruelling TBR challenge, instead of learning my lesson I’ve gorged myself like sugar addict at the end of Lent. Not a pretty sight. My shelves groan, my walls shudder under the weight of all that paper shoved mercilessly into the tiniest sliver of space.

It’s not healthy. It’s not healthy, particularly, because if I don’t read a book within about a month of purchase, the odds of reading it at all deteriorate rapidly. Consequently my shelves are filled with books I once wanted to read, books I bought for reasons that mystify me – I can’t imagine why I would ever have wanted to read Gravity’s Rainbow if it had, perhaps, not been £0.20p at the library sale. Book bargains have always been a temptation to me, and there are a good many books sitting on my shelves purely on account of their cheapness. I won’t dwell on what that says about me. Then there are the books which were gifts, books which I may never have bought which sit accusingly unread on my shelves reminding me how horribly ungrateful I am. I put off reading them because I didn’t choose them myself and there are already so many books that I did choose that I haven’t yet got around to reading. I know this is silly. I have read some amazing books which came to me purely as a gift: Megan Abbott’s Dare Me being the most obvious which springs to mind. A book I would have walked past without regret turned out to be a crackling, enjoyable little thriller that changed my mind entirely about the subject of cheerleading. If you happen to be reading this as a person who may at one time or other have kindly gifted me a book, forgive me. I do get around to them all eventually (honest).

This isn’t the whole story. As I thought about it, I realised there was another phenomenon at work. Once I bought a book, once I filed it onto my shelf, its existence curiously faded into the back of my consciousness. When I desire a book, whether specifically or a book of a character or subject, it is all I can think about. I make lists. I look in the library catalogue, I read the ‘Look inside’ on Amazon (but never buy there); I look for it in the bookshop, I take it from the shelf and cradle it. The presence and existence of the book fills my thoughts in a way little else does. I am consumed by it, whatever it is, and it feels like if I don’t grasp it right now, guzzle its plot, its diction, its unique and significant prose down instantaneously my mind will immediately atrophy. But my desire for reading outstrips my available time, and even I haven’t yet deteriorated to the point where I can eschew my commitments to satisfy my reading needs. Notwithstanding the other things I want to do: spare time for writing, for research, for speaking to my family and reminding them I exist as something other than the dusty article sitting in the corner, face in book. So I buy a book and I place it on my shelves and then I have it. This frees me up to think about the next book I want and the next. I think I’ve already mentioned before how unhealthy this is.

And this is, perhaps, the point of all of this. In constantly thinking about what I don’t yet have, I’d forgotten the treasures in my possession. I’ve forgotten so completely that sometimes I look at my shelves and feel surprised at what I find there. So I decided to conduct an experiment. The experiment, I should admit now, went slightly  awry. I had planned to spend some time just sitting and appreciating my book shelves – observing what I had and reminding myself why it is exciting, why I wanted to read or re-read it, rekindling my passion for the books I’d already shown a passion for at least once before. In principle this would not be difficult, however on the day in question I bent over my dressing table to get something out of a drawer and when I straightened I felt one of those ominous twinges which quickly turned into the old woman hobble of a back done inexplicably in. So instead of sitting, zen-like and mindful, staring at my shelves for an hour or so, I’ve had to imagine it from the semi-prone position it is temporarily comfortable to be in.

What did I discover? A treasure trove, a gluttony of books I didn’t just want to read historically but which I still wanted to read. Like the Country Girls series by Edna O’Brien, the Neopolitan series by Elena Ferrante (yes, how did I forget about that?), like Foe by Coetzee, the Icelandic Sagas, The Dream of the Red Chamber. That’s not counting, of course, the books I’ve already read which are crying out to me to be read again: The Last Samurai which I want to read every year, Middlemarch, Kristen Lavransdatter, The Tale of Genji, To the Lighthouse. It is great, reading broadly and widely, there is something exciting in the appeal of a brand new book, the spark of discovery, but there comes a point where a deeper, more meaningful relationship is needed. It is, perhaps, the difference between the thrill of having many lovers and the understanding which comes from a long-term relationship. Both have merits, both are experiences which the other, seemingly, precludes. In my relationship with reading, I have had one type of relationship for so long I’ve forgotten the joys of the other. It is possible to have both, but not the way I’m approaching it.

This is a blog about treasure, about discovering the hidden treasures that are buried right where I am, that have become so commonplace I no longer see them for what they are. It is about not taking for granted the things already available to me. It is not just about books, but about everything. Sitting and staring at my shelves for however long I can do so, learning to see what is there, is a practice I can apply to my whole life. I can apply it to my family and my relationships, enriching my experience and deepening those connections. I can apply it to my work, valuing the input of my colleagues, of their achievements and their strengths. I can apply it to my decrepit old body which may creak, may be peppered with cracks and fissures and imperfections, but which contains all of me, which is strong in ways I don’t appreciate, which is a marvel and a mystery.

I have written about this before; I am, it seems, in danger of becoming repetitive. Yet repetitive is exactly what I think I need. I need to repeat the feeling that led me to a book which I then acquired and allow it to propel me to read it. I need to constantly remind myself, when my mind is wandering along its path of fanciful desires, that I don’t need something new to invigorate me, that invigoration is already available to me in the richness of what I already have. I have a marvellous life. I am lucky to be able to read deeply, to read regularly, to have the space and time, their leisure and capacity, to enter into the minds of others, to share their insights and experiences. I spend far too much time feeling like I’m missing something. I know this is how I’ve been socially wired – our capitalist society relies upon the desire for more, for the new, for the different. It is time to overcome my conditioning. I know I sound like a seasoned alcoholic trying to convince myself that coffee is a fair substitute for a litre of vodka, and perhaps that’s exactly what I am. But even a seasoned alcoholic can break the self-defeating habit of a lifetime. As long as that remains the case, there is hope for me.