To read, and to love reading again, is to ‘master our circumstances.’
It is 11:11am Thursday morning, a time when most of the workplace weary are dutifully at work. I, in contrast, and in the blessed good fortune of the self-employed, have just finished reading a 462-page of masterfully crafted fiction, having purposely setting aside the morning to do so.
In a word, I feel transformed. I guess I could say I’ve been working in a way, for it has been work on me.
“And your occupation?”
“It is not the business of gentlemen to have occupations.”
“Very well then. How do you spend your time?”
“Dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigamarole.”
I admit to having started my reading of this particular book as a 21st-century creature whose attentions have been whittled away and belittled by our recent technologically ‘advanced’ years, far too many of them to give in to an admission of counting them, wherein the digital has scorned the analog. Screens have taunted printed books, and dismissed them as “old school” or “tree-killers,” causing us to treat most books with little of the respect they are due.
And it’s not just books. We are bombarded with information, articles and broadcasts of numerous sort, such that we’ve become terrific skimmers, but poor understanders. We have far too little patience, and allowing our attentions to be shredded and shortened has cost us dearly.
These days, we think of leisurely reading, and especially the reading of fiction, as what we can fit into found time, such as when we prop a book on a kitchen counter while waiting for a pot of water to boil, or when we’ve no choice but to stand in a long line outside the D.M.V. to renew our driver’s license.
Not so. In reading Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, I feel newly schooled for our time, gently reminded that reading, and reading comprehension, should be something we purposely make room for in our lives, giving it the time it so well deserves. When we do so, and actually schedule time for reading as an occupation of our better selves and more attuned senses, we will be all the better for it.
I started reading Towles’s book with the same just-learn-the-story dismissiveness with which I’d recently zipped through Min Jin Lee’s brick of a book Pachinko, finishing those 479 pages in just two days thanks to being trapped in airplane seats. Then, on page 292 or so, I decided I had to go back and start my reading of A Gentleman in Moscow all over again, reading slowly and more carefully. I decided I had been foolish up til then; if I was going to read this book at all, I had to read with more thoughtful intention, and with more willingness to have my senses invaded, captured and captivated.
I’ll quote the back cover of the paperback, to tell you what A Gentleman in Moscow is all about;
“When, in 1922, thirty-year-old Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel near the Kremlin. An indomitable man of erudition and wit, Rostov must now live in an attic room as some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history unfold. Unexpectedly, the Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry into a world of emotional discovery as he forges friendships with the hotel’s denizens. But when fate puts the life of a young girl in his hands, he must draw on all his ingenuity to protect the future she deserves. Hailed for its humor, intrigue, and beautifully rendered scenes, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the Count’s endeavor to become a man of purpose.”
Though via the unassuming spread of Costco’s flat-stacked book table, this book seems to have come to me at precisely the right time, given our Managing with Aloha 2019 theme of Alonui—full presence.
I had also been looking for a book that would teach me more about Russian history for some time now, but through the eyes of its citizenry rather than as told by historians: A few years ago, I had learned that my paternal grandmother’s parents had fled their Russian home in May of 1910, reaching Hawai‘i by way of a sad stop in Japan, where they were forced to bury another child who died at sea during the voyage. They changed their name, from what we don’t know, and we have not been able to pinpoint exactly where they had lived in Russia; we do know they were farmers. My great grandfather was no Count Rostov; he would abandon his wife and 8 remaining children six years later; he is believed to have sailed to China, never to be heard from again.
Once I recommitted myself to properly respectful reading, A Gentleman in Moscow became thoroughly enjoyable, though the ‘research’ it afforded me began at that Bolshevik tribunal twelve years later. To be honest, I thought it a bit laborious during my initial reading, until I realized the problem was with me, and with when and how I read, and not with the book at all. As I started over I felt renewed, and handsomely rewarded for the time I freely and eagerly gave to it. I was not at all surprised at how much I missed the first time around.
One other unexpected delight for me, was a kind of kinship felt with those “denizens” of the Hotel Metropol given my 35-year career in the hotel business. From the very first hotel I’d worked at and without exception in all the others, I’d consistently been aware I was part of a community, unique to itself, yet varied in its multitude of possibilities and subtly crafted relationships, whether with our customers or with each other. I’ve discovered my fair share of implausible rooms, hidden closets and carved out spaces while prowling a hotel’s service corridors! It’s not a stretch in the least for me to imagine the Count confined there for so many years, and I daresay all managers in the hotel business feel the same way.
See the Metropol hotel, and sit in on a visit with Amor Towles, here, (for CBS This Morning).
Borrowing from the jacket above has made this long enough, and so while I could echo much of what is shared in other reviews here, I won’t do so, and will let my 4-star rating speak for itself.
I’ve joyfully given in to the temptation of using GoodReads to curate my own reading evolution, and felt compelled to use this particular review to note with great relief, that I can be a proper reader again. No more rushing, for the goodness of a book as wonderful as this one, is a supremely delightful experience.
“If a man [or woman] does not master his circumstances, then he is bound to be mastered by them.”
I will continue to work on mastering my reading.
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