I spent a lot of time thinking about the kind of books I wanted to focus on in my attempt to read more slowly, and it wasn’t too long before Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence found itself rising to the top of the pile. In fact it positively nudged me. It seemed perfect in many ways being a book I’ve read before, and therefore satisfying my desire to re-read more, as well as encompassing much of what I want to achieve by reading less: silence, thoughtfulness, a desire for less, though like Maitland I don’t entirely see it in those terms. I remember being extremely moved by the book last time I read it, which must have been no more than a couple of years ago and around a similar time of year. Perhaps it is only natural after the noise and excess of Christmas that an introvert such as myself would be drawn to silence, absence and emptiness.
A Book of Silence charts Maitland’s journey towards a more silent life. At around the age of fifty Maitland’s circumstances changed. Her marriage broke down and she began to live (mostly) alone. She found herself thinking more about silence, about seeking a quieter kind of life as well as exploring and becoming more attuned to her faith. From that point she began to move towards a solitary existence, exploring and examining both her own response to and desire for silence as well as the role and perception of silence, particularly in Western culture. Maitland observed that the people around her were not entirely supportive of her move towards silence (though not actively opposed), perceiving it as a possible symptom of depression or self-abnegation; and society as a whole, particularly Western society, generally perceives silence in a negative way, something to be avoided as much as possible. This negativity was not her perception, but she often found it difficult to explain what it was she was seeking in the silence, as she explains here:
“But most curious of all, my attempts to describe my experiences of silence, even to people who wanted to hear because they love me, forced me to feel that silence itself resists all attempts to talk about it, to try to theorise, explain or even describe it. This is not, I think, because silence is ‘without meaning’. It is ‘outwith language’. ‘Outwith’ is a wonderful Scottish word for which standard English appears to have no exact equivalent – outwith means ‘outside of’, ‘not within the circumference of something else’. ‘Without’ is necessarily negative and suggests that something is lacking.”
This concept of ‘outwith’ really resonated with me as it describes so neatly the kind of books I most admire. I realised that I have been drawn to, perhaps always drawn to, books which centre around this ‘outwithness’, people or characters who choose to exist outside the normal bonds of society not as a negative or rejecting act, nor because they are rejected themselves, but as a positive move towards something else. Here I felt Maitland giving voice to something I had struggled to articulate, and it felt like a profound reading moment.
As part of her exploration into silence, Maitland embarked on a forty day trial of being alone, renting a bothy on the Isle of Skye and being totally disconnected from the outside world. Here she walked, prayed, read and examined her feelings during this period of silence. She also sought to learn more about other people’s experiences of silence and was drawn to explore the lives of desert hermits, yachtspeople undertaking long journeys single-handed, explorers, mountaineers, adventurers. All different types of people who have experienced silence in different ways and had a range of responses to it. Maitland herself was surprised to find the experience an extremely positive one, one which encouraged her to seek more silence in her own life.
Following her time in Skye Maitland moved to a more remote part of the UK and later undertook short spell in the desert, here to better understand the actions of the desert hermits and explore her religious connection to silence, and then a spell walking in the hills of Scotland to better understand how silence stirs creativity in writers. She considers this duality in some depth, as it seems that seekers of silence tend to one camp or the other whereas she was drawn to both. She explores how silence tends to serve two different functions: either to dissolve the boundaries of the self to create a connection, a sense of oneness, with all life and being; or to shore up the boundaries of the self so that the ‘true’ voice of the individual can be uncovered. Whilst both were important to Maitland as a person of strong religious faith and as a writer, there’s a sense that it is the former which had the most profoundly stirring effect upon her as she describes so beautifully here:
” And there, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, I slipped a gear or something like that. There was not me and the landscape, but a kind of oneness: a connection as though my skin had blown off. More than that – as though the molecules and atoms I am made of had reunited themselves with the molecules and atoms that the rest of the world is made of. I felt absolutely connected to everything. It was very brief, but it was a total moment. I cannot remember feeling that extraordinary sense of connectedness since I was a small child.”
Maitland eventually moves to a remote part of Scotland, enabling her to bring silence more permanently into her life. She is not entirely disconnected, but she is able to live silently around 80% of the time. For many people I know this would simply be too much, but the idea of enabling silent time, I think, would probably benefit most of us. As a introverted person I value silence, but I realised as I read that I rarely experienced it. In fact, I often think of reading time as silent time though as Maitland identifies the idea of reading as a ‘silent’ activity is not entirely accurate. I might not speak, but I am flooded with words, but I am isolated and ring-fenced in many ways from the people around me. But times of actual silence are largely absent from my life. This realisation surprised me, and I resolved to attempt to find some pockets of silent time in my life, as I think I would find them both restorative and enlightening.
I was glad to have chosen A Book of Silence as my introduction to slower, deeper reading. It turned out to be a profound and insightful choice, one which led me to some surprising discoveries and which has shored up my determination to continue on this path of reading less. It has helped me to understand something fundamental about what I’m trying to achieve here, something which is summed up quite neatly by this sentence close to the end of the book in which Maitland is exploring the perception of those who choose a silent life:
“The sensible person practiced disciplines, like an athlete in training, in pursuit of the radical freedom to choose the good, unhampered by the pressures of the ego and the weakness of the flesh.”
I realised that this is a good explanation of what I am trying to do: practice discipline so that it frees me, rather than restricts. I realised that my choice is not a negative one. I am not attempting to deny myself. Rather I am trying to free myself from the grip of the novel (pardon the pun) and I am choosing to enrich my reading experience by reading more deeply. I think this realisation makes all the difference between my unsuccessful TBRs from the past and the possibility of succeeding this time. Like Maitland I am not moving away from something but towards something, I am not denying myself but giving myself something. And, thanks to Maitland’s extraordinary book, it already feels like a gift.
A Book of Silence is published by Granta Books.