Why You Should Learn to Read Like a Buddhist Monk

I have three sisters. We actually all get (and got) along quite well. But as those of you with kids will know, the phrase “sibling rivalry” is one of the great understatements of our time. The correct phrase should be “sibling guerrilla warfare”. Siblings fight. They argue. They tease each other and provoke each other when they are bored, and undermine each other when they feeling grumpy. Not me and my middle sister, though. For about two years we got along like a house on fire.

Because she was up a tree.

My middle sister, circa 1984

My middle sister, circa 1984

The tree in question was a spreading old pin-oak at the front of my parents’ house. We lived behind a big stone wall and a big wooden gate, and climbing the oak was the only way we could spy on the people out in the road. And it just so happened that we started climbing the oak at round about the same time my sister started reading Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree books. And so it made perfect sense that the pin-oak was to become the magic faraway tree. My sister rigged up a bucket and some rope so that she could haul up some sandwiches and a bottle of cooldrink, and retired to the branches of our magic faraway tree to read The Magic Faraway Tree.

She must have enjoyed it up there, because even once she was done with Enid Blyton, she stayed, reading other books. She would, of course, come down every now and then for a meal or a light skirmish, but for the most part she was more gorilla than guerrilla, and stuck to her natural habitat up amongst the leaves. She had learned something rather special for a child with three siblings. She had learned to be at peace.

It was a lesson that she never forgot. She is one of those rare and blessed people who can switch off.

We were all readers; we grew up without a TV, so it was books, board games or radio plays. BBC radio plays were not cool in an era when our peers were watching The A-Team and Knight Rider, and board games often resulted in bloodshed, so books it was. But my other two sisters and I learned to read like guerrillas; no matter how deep we were in the pool of the story in front of us, a part of us was always alert for the crinkling of an unshared chip packet or the faint but unmistakable sound of a mother discovering that R500 worth of exclusive perfume had been used to make a vampire-fighting potion in the bathroom.

She calmed down when she realised how much we were saving on garlic.

She calmed down when she realised how much we were saving on garlic.

Not my middle sister. No-one shares your chips when you’re up a tree, and mothers aren’t so good at climbing. She learned to lose herself completely. She still does. It’s like watching someone slip into a trance. Once she picks up a book, you have a five minute window during which you can pull her back. After that, she may as well be in Timbuktu.

You can tell her her kids are spray-painting the neighbour’s toddler yellow, and she will mutter “m’kay” and keep reading. You can pour a glass of water over her hair, and she will frown and give her head a half-hearted shake. But her eyes won’t leave the page. You can set fire to her house, and she will turn away slightly so that the flames don’t dry out her eyeballs. But she will not look up. She is at peace. And not just any peace. Zen peace. She is meditating.

Only now am I coming to realise what a gift that is. My son is an evolutionary curiosity. He has my eyes, and my hair, and my inability to organise his life, but he also appears to have evolved a special gland that pumps adrenaline laced with caffeine straight into his heart. Permanently. That is not from me. I was so laid back as a child that they kept testing me for bilharzia. Not the boy though.

My entire childhood photo album looks something like this.

My entire childhood photo album looks something like this.

He is never still. He does not walk down passages, he leaps or leopard-crawls, avoiding pools of lava and heavy gunfire. He does not sit in chairs, he perches on the backs of them like a nervous vulture with restless leg syndrome. Burglar bars are not for security, they are for launching an assault on the icy and treacherous North Face of our home.

He is, in other words, a little busy. And noisy. His imagination is as active as the rest of him, and a constant stream of yawps and gibbers and pops and booms pours from his mouth, the soundtrack to whatever movie is playing out in his head. Walking down an empty corridor he will suddenly stop, spreading his arms and hopping to his toes, before nodding slowly and making that whispered “yeaaaaaaah” noise boys make to signify a cheering crowd. I have no idea what he’s doing, but I am deeply envious. My head is mostly filled with thoughts about bacon.

We love him dearly, but all this can get to be a bit much for the sort of person that others suspect of having bilharzia. My wife, rather disappointingly, won’t let me duct-tape him to a tree at the bottom of the garden; she says that the neighbours would talk, and that with the rest of his body strapped up tight, his eyebrows would be moving so fast that they would constitute a fire hazard. So we tried the next best thing. We bought him a book. From Exclusive Books. In Clearwater.

My wife never lets me have any fun.

My wife never lets me have any fun.

It worked! Now we do it all the time. When we head off to the shops, things are pretty much normal. The boy power-slides down the aisles on his knees, like a rock-god from an eighties hair-band, or ambushes the horde of orcs behind us from the entrances of exclusive jewellery shops and busy restaurants with a loud “buddabuddabuddabuddapeeeooow” sound. This is not a problem, since he orbits us at a distance, and we can pretend that we have never seen him in our lives before.

The problem starts once he has the book in his hand. A remarkable change comes over him. He is lost to the world. His leaps and slides will slow to a zombie shuffle, and the stream of noise coming from his mouth will dry up. This sounds like a change for the better, but it isn’t. Power sliding on your knees or spraying a hail of covering fire at orcs are controlled actions. Reading and walking at the same time are not.

The boy would cheerfully walk into a combine harvester if one happened to be baling hay in the food-court. He will not look up or answer when spoken to. We have to steer him around pillars and corners, and grab him by the scruff of the neck to stop him walking up the down escalator and hitting a state of equilibrium like a hamster on a wheel.

He gets into the car in silence, drives home in silence, and then scuttles through to his room. In silence. He is at peace. And not just any peace. Zen peace. He is meditating.

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I am still a reader (it’s kinda part of my job description). But not like this. I am not a Zen reader. I never mastered the art of diving in that deep. Childhood concerns with unshared chips and rampaging mothers have been replaced with parental concerns. A part of my brain is always outside of the book, on the alert for the sound of breaking glass or the keening war-cry of an angry five-year-old, or worse yet, silence. Silence is very bad indeed.

I am not a jealous person by nature. I don’t envy the rich their wealth or the good-looking their chiselled cheekbones and piercing eyes (although I do, to be honest, envy people with lots of bacon). But I do envy these Zen readers. And it’s not just my sister and my son. There are others out there.

Look around you next time you are stuck in a bank queue, or on a bus, or in a dentist’s waiting room. You will be surrounded by edgy, unhappy people. People gibbering into cell phones or flicking non-committally through magazines. People tapping away at laptops or impatiently checking their watches. People hunched over in uncomfortable chairs staring down at the ground in front of them, or raising their heads and sighing theatrically to show you how much worse this is for them than it is for you.

And every now and then, you will see someone else. Someone who is not edgy or unhappy. Someone at peace. A Zen reader.

Here's one now...

Here’s one now…

They will not be wasting their precious time in a queue. They will be riding across the endless grasslands of Patagonia or falling in love with a shirtless vampire, and they will be slightly put out when they reach the front of the line. They will not be stuck in an uncomfortable chair on an endless international flight. They will be fighting orcs or dancing with snake-hipped Gypsies, and will feel rudely interrupted when the pilot announces that the plane will be landing soon.

You might even have one of these people in your life. Next time you see a loved-one curled up in an unlikely position on a couch with their nose in a book, lean forward and say “Darling, I’m not content. I’m leaving you and joining a cult.”

If they look up in horror, and begin to splutter, your loved one is an ordinary reader. If they frown slightly, nod, and mutter “m’kay” without looking up, you have yourself a Zen reader. Resign yourself to the fact that when the book comes out, you are going to have to do double duty when it comes to looking after children, cooking, watching out for fires and fighting off marauding Cossacks. It might not be fair, but it is what it is.

So how do you become a Zen reader? I wish I knew. If you know, please tell me. All I can suggest is that you practice. We have all the necessary equipment here at Exclusive Books. In Clearwater.

You can set up your own home gym.

You can set up your own home gym.

The truth is, it might be too late for us. We might have to resign ourselves to common or garden reading forever. But it isn’t too late for our kids. You can give them this gift. It’s all rather simple. All you need is a bucket of sandwiches and cooldrink, a pile of books, and a large, spreading old oak tree…

22 thoughts on “Why You Should Learn to Read Like a Buddhist Monk

  1. What I want to know, is when and how are you coming to my home and stealing my son for observation? Because you have described him to a ‘T’!

    I guess there are some differences. My son is only four and no matter how much I try to read to him, he is not interested in books =(. I’ve tried Star Wars, pirates, those annoying books with loud truck noises, superheroes (the kid swears by superheroes. Everyday he’s Batman, SuperFlash or Spidey, but will he read about them? Nooooo!), nothing seems to work.

    He’s met his match, though. I’m not giving up! Tomorrow, we’re going to try something entirely new. We’re going to try a biography! And after that, maybe a kid-friendly romance. I won’t give up until we get to the tax code. If we get there and the boy just isn’t interested in books, I don’t know what to do.

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    • Dinosaurs worked for us. But what really worked was telling our kids that they could choose between going to sleep and hearing a story. For some reason staying up late is the child equivalent of discovering the holy grail.

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  2. Zen reader here too.
    Mum: Dinner’s ready.
    Me: Yeah I’m coming.
    Repeat 5 minutes later.
    Repeat again.
    Reheat meal once.
    Reheat it again.
    Walk into room, remove book from hand and drag me to the table.
    OR walk in on me on the loo with a book. Twice in the same reading “visit”.

    I can focus slightly on the world around me now but reading is most dangerous as I have one of those piewpiew mountain climbing dinosaur riding, sibling killing sons who is currently NOT interested in reading. My brain registers silence as good because I can read. My Mummy-sense is a little slow on the catch up and realises after 15 minutes that silence is DANGEROUS! Reluctantly put down book, go and find out what disaster the pewpew boy (6), the loudly screaming daughter (4.5) and miniature natural disaster (3) are up to. It never ends well but once Mummy has finished sorting out the chaos, or demanding disaster creators clear up their disasters, I inevitably return to zen. 🙂

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    • I must confess to being a little suspicious of you people. Especially my son. There is a fine line between “not hearing” and “willfully ignoring”.

      Those people who claim that “silence is golden” clearly have nannies…

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    • I know how it goes. If you are anywhere within 100 pages of the end of a book, you are technically finished, and cannot be expected to do anything else until you wrapped up those last few odds and ends.

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  3. Pingback: About reading | Hemingways of Hermanus

  4. Congratulations on the bookstore blog! It will certainly inspire trips to the book store and reawaken that wonderful feeling you get when wandering the aisles to pick just the right thing. In the age of Kindle and all kinds of electronic tablets to convey all kinds of writing, there is still nothing better than a printed book to curl up with. I think bookstores are kind of magical! But, then maybe, I suppose, I fall into the Zen reader category. I remember irritating my mother when it was time to do chores because I could not crawl out of that other world I was in to go and vacuum or other such thing. Being ripped from The Zen Zone made me very cranky.

    Good luck with this wonderful blog about books and reading!!

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    • Thank you kindly.
      We live in a tiny house, and I have a voice like a bullhorn, but to get my son to react to anything, we have to go into his room and physically take his book out of his hand. On the plus side, we have bought a mini blow-torch, and can get him to do almost anything by taking his book hostage and moving it closer and closer to the flame while asking nicely…

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  5. Reblogged this on 23thorns and commented:

    Success! I have crossed the right i’s and dotted the right t’s and have been given the go-ahead to start a blog for my store.
    I have no-idea how re-blogging works, but I will re-blog posts from there, here if I think they are worthy.
    Yay. Now that blogging about books is work, I can go back to blogging about Tsessebes for fun. See you there…

    Like

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