ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
When Adam Haslett, author of the book "Union Atlantic," wanted to escape the white noise of his city life, he looked for something to transport him to a quiet place. And that something was "A Time to Keep Silence" by Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Haslett has this recommendation as part of our series You Must Read This, in which authors talk about a book they love.
Mr. ADAM HASLETT (Author, "Union Atlantic"): Last summer, I was struck by a severe case of wanderlust. I wanted urgently to be on my own in the woods, away from the radiating concrete and steel of New York in July. So I packed my bags and set out for the coast of Maine.
On the way, I stopped to see a friend. When he heard the purpose of my trip -to step outside the daily round of distraction and obligation - he pulled a book off his shelf and suggests that I might want to take it along for the journey. It was called "A Time to Keep Silence" by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and I quickly fell under its spell.
At a mere 95 pages, it's a short read, yet nothing about it makes you want to rush. In the mid-1950s, Fermor, an English travel writer who as a young man once walked from Holland to Turkey, became interested in the life of monks. He decided to visit several Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries in France.
"A Time to Keep Silence" is the record of those visits, and it accomplishes something that few books do: It replicates in style and rhythm the very experience that it seeks to describe. The writing is spare, exactingly precise, and then occasionally quite beautiful, just as the lives of the monks we hear about are pared down, highly concentrated and every now and then sublime. In short, it's a book about the contemplative life that delivers the reader into a contemplation of his or her own.
When he first arrives at the Abbey of Saint Wandrille de Fontanelle, Fermor is shown to his visitor's cell. He writes: A mood of depression and of unspeakable loneliness suddenly felled me like a hammer stroke. He is used to the world of entertainment and distraction, as most of us are, but all that has now ceased, and there is nowhere for his nervous energy to go.
But after a few days amidst the silent rituals of the monastery, his mood changes. There were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life. Soon, he writes, dreamless nights came to an end with no harder shock than that of a boat's keel grounding on a lake shore.
To read that beautiful, restful sentence is to experience a small piece of the restfulness Fermor himself found. When we say that a book transports us, this is what we mean: not just that it helps us escape - lots of things do that -but the music of the words themselves sings us into a different world.
I had my walks in the woods in Maine last summer. I had my own time to keep silence, and I was lucky enough to have Fermor's book along with me. We can't all be monks, and most of us wouldn't want to be, but the genius of excellent writing is that we can know something of what that other life is.
SIEGEL: Adam Haslett is the author of "Union Atlantic." He recommended Patrick Leigh Fermor's "A Time to Keep Silence."
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