On Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life:
“It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.”
The American writer and dilettante Logan Pearsall Smith once said: “Some people think that life is the thing; but I prefer reading.” When I first came across this, I thought it witty; now I find it – as I do many aphorisms – a slick untruth. Life and reading are not separate activities. The distinction is false (as it is when Yeats imagines a choice between “perfection of the life, or of the work”).
When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it. There may be a superficial escape – into different countries, mores, speech patterns – but what you are essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life’s subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains and truths. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic. And for this serious task of imaginative discovery and self-discovery, there is and remains one perfect symbol: the printed book.