When I set myself a challenge I really like to test myself, which is why I don’t set myself challenges very often and when I do I often fail. When I set myself this challenge to read fewer books I thought about filling my first month with long books, books that I might not finish in a week and so I could con myself into believing that I had managed to crack my book-guzzling habits. Boosted by my experiences with both A Book of Silence and Housekeeping, I began to consider the opposite approach. If I can grow accustomed to reading shorter books and mulling them over more, I might in fact achieve my aim more quickly. This is how I came to decide to read Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. The Living Mountain is 108 pages long, slightly longer if you include the introduction by Robert McFarlane which appears in my copy and which is most certainly worth reading though I chose to skip it this time, having read the book before and desiring to limit myself to the text as Shepherd intended it. 108 pages. I could read that in a day with relative ease and yet it had to be the only book I read this week. I imagined myself reading extremely attentively, limiting myself, perhaps, to 3 chapters a day (there are 12 in total) and going back over the book again towards the end of the week. That’s not quite how it turned out in the end, proving yet again that things rarely, if ever, turn out as expected.
But first to the book. The Living Mountain was written by Shepherd around the second world war and captures her experiences of walking on the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland. Shepherd write the book then stuck in a draw for many years before finally having it published, misguided, perhaps, by an assessment from her friend Neil Gunn that it would be difficult to find a publisher for it (although he loved the book). It is a book which is as timely today as it was at the time it was written, being brief but extraordinarily powerful. In twelve short chapters Shepherd uncovers how the mountains have shaped and defined her, how they have revealed themselves, how they have nurtured and destroyed, how they exercise their power and withhold it. She explores the mountains through those who climb them and live on them, how it reveals the motives underlying our quest to ‘master them’ or contain them, exploit them or unite with them. She shares how her own exploration of the mountains changed over the years, turning from one of conquest – of desire to achieve the heights – to one of exploration, both of the mountain and of herself.
“Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”
There are distinctly buddhist undertones in The Living Mountain, not overt (Shepherd was not a practitioner, but an interested party) but arising naturally out of a deep connection with nature. Shepherd’s detailed exploration of the mountains, the way her exploration of them changed from one in which she sought to gain from the mountain to a quest for knowledge of the mountain itself by exploring its character, its weather, the inner places, the Corries and Lochs which hide in secret is reminiscent of the buddhist monk’s pilgrimage to the mountains or, for a more literary comparison, Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North. It shares a meditative quality with that book too.
“So I looked slowly across the Coire Loch, and began to understand that haste can do nothing with these hills. I knew when I had looked for a long time that I had hardly begun to see.”
It is a short book, but it has a lingering quality to it. In many ways it affirms much of what I am seeking from this quest to read more slowly and deeply, and it reinforces my rationale for doing so. In exploring only the Cairngorms (though they are pretty big!) Shepherd chose the deep and detailed life, and by doing so she revealed something to herself. She slept on the mountain and came to know the mountain, not “as puss caresses not the man but herself against the man’s leg” but “to discover the mountain for itself”. She experienced deep silence, the exhilaration of height, the wonder of discovery. She also respects the mountain, its weathers which take life easily, its fogs and snow and sudden rain. It is both tragedy and joy, which is a perfect metaphor for life itself. In this way Shepherd encourages us to live, not merely to exist.
“To bend an ear to silence is to discover how seldom it is there. Always something moves. When hte 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 solence is all but absolute, and listening to it one slips out of time. Such a silence is not a mere negation of sound. It is like a new element, and if water is still sounding with a low far-off murmur, it is no more than the last edge of an element we are leaving, as the last edge of land hangs on the mariner’s horizon.”
I have read The Living Mountain before and remember all of this – the beautiful slowness, the reminder that to come to know something we have to move past our own ego and desire and allow ourselves to see the thing for what it is. Shepherd’s book reveals this so simply and beautifully and because of this, depite its brevity, it is a remarkable read. Yet for some reason it simply would not sink in this time. I tried reading through it and reading it again. I tried restricting myself to one chapter at a time. I tried reading it aloud, and imagining it read aloud (for some reason by Nicola Sturgeon who has the perfect voice for this book) and yet again it would not go in. I found myself easily distracted, any noise shocked me out of my reading and I found myself passing my eyes over the words and then wondering just what it was I had read. There were moments that punched through despite the ease with which my mind was turned to other thoughts, because in some places the book is so powerful even distraction could not prevent its message from flowing through. But mostly my mind would not attend to it. This made for an incredibly frustrating reading experience. I knew the book was good, I knew I could enjoy it and I knew that it was worth reading slowly. But at no time did I feel I was achieving that deeper reading.
Then, yesterday morning, I sat on my doorstep for a while, ostensibly to supervise my kitten who is just coming to explore the outside world and who won’t go outside without a human nearby to shelter underwhen a strange noise unsettles her. The winter sun touched the doorstep making it warmer than it would otherwise be and I sipped my cup of coffee and listened to the birds whilst reading chapter 10 and my attention was complete and focused, just as I had wanted it to be all along.
I realised I had made a few mistakes this week, that I have to compliment my approach to reading with a wider approach to my life. I worked from home three days, and whilst it is nice not to have to travel I have no established routine and no disconnect between my working and home life on those days. Everything blurs into everything else, there are no boundaries and no silent spaces in which I can reflect and recover my thinking. I have come to realise that I need pockets of time in which I have nothing to do and nothing to think about and in which nothing is expected of me. My regular work routine, with a reasonably long commute enables this quite naturally, and during my lunch hour I can escape for half an hour and go somewhere quiet and undemanding. Even if it’s just a half hour in the library, or down by the canal, or having a coffee in a little cafe. In my home working life I don’t have these separations. I need to make sure that I create them if I’m going to read more deeply. Giving myself the gift of silence and calm is essential to my mental wellbeing.
Despite this minor irritation it was a good reading week and I have learned much from this less than satisfactory experience. Whilst my mental focus hasn’t been exactly where I wanted it to be, I haven’t at any point been tempted to buy a book or break my pact with myself and this feels like something of an achivement. I find myself approaching the end of the month with considerably positivity. I am certain that this slower reading path is right for me, that I am, slowly, conquering my need for novelty and returning the experience to one of nurture and learning as opposed to compulsive need. I suspect Nan Shepherd would understand exactly what I mean.
The Living Mountain is published by Canongate Books