The calm in the storm: Reading by candlelight

August 26, 2011

It will be a dark and stormy night.

A hurricane.

With books.

“Oh, my goodness,” says Alice Ozma. “I think that the biggest thing that the Red Cross left off their emergency-preparedness list is as many library books as you can check out.” Ozma is an author whose debut memoir, “The Reading Promise,” recounts reading with her father. “It’s hunkering down, letting those sounds wash over you, and there’s a blanket,” ideally a patchwork quilt.

This weekend, as most of the Eastern Seaboard prepares for a watery wallop, as everyone else brawls over nonperishables in Giant, bookworms are preparing to live out a deep and soulful dream. A Laura Ingallsesque dream. A dream that involves hot chocolate and fuzzy slippers, and showcasing one’s literary dedication by self-punishing one’s eyesight.

Reading. By. Candlelight.

“My idea of heaven,” says Elissa Miller, the associate director of collections for the District’s public library system, “is to just be stuck somewhere. Stuck for an extended period of time.” She cites being stranded for 24 hours on a train in the high plains of Bolivia. She had a thousand-page book. It was marvelous.

The exquisite pleasure of reading in storms, reading under duress, reading via melting wax is not something that can be explained to someone who does not automatically understand the appeal of such an activity. One imagines that it is akin to the pleasure of baking on hot bleachers for a sports team, a ludicrous activity that sounds perfectly dreadful, though some people appear to enjoy it.

(The Victorian Trading Co., for example, understands the appeal: Its Web site sells a Sip & Read by Candlelight Bathtub Caddy, which includes a built-in bookrack, a candlestick and a holder for your wineglass.)

Candlelight reading is a fantasy that persists even though those who have tried it will attest that the act is not nearly as romantic as it sounds.

“First, the book absolutely has to be tipped up,” says Colin Beavan, a documentarian who lived without electricity for a year as part of his “No Impact Man” project. “And,” he advises, “the candle should be between you and the book, not off to the side; unless, of course, you have a candelabra. Then that’s a whole different situation.”

During their powerless year, Beavan and his wife spent many nights sitting at their kitchen table with candles and books or playing cards. “We say that televisions pull us apart, because we each have sets in our own room,” Beavan says. “But electric lights do the same thing. People used to have to gather together, around the light. The candlelight can pull us all together.”

Everything is cozier in candlelight. When the real world goes fuzzy, the world on the page grows sharper. When there is nothing else we should be doing — no vacuums can be run, no treadmills can be run upon — it is easier to retreat, guiltlessly, into reading “The Chronicles of Narnia” for the 27th time, spooning ice cream from the carton (it will melt, anyway) and watching words flicker on the page.

“You know, they have battery-operated flameless candles,” says Pete Piringer, the D.C. fire department spokesman. “It’s a great effect,” he says hopefully. Then he sighs.

“That’s probably not what these people are looking for.”

No, Mr. Piringer. No, it is not. But thank you.

What we are looking for is a flickering light, a Kindle with fresh downloads, a stack of paperbacks with the spines broken in — and exactly the right genre to sink our brains into.

“I think there’s something really nice about books where people are isolated and have no option to leave,” says Ozma, the author. “During the last snowstorm, I was reading ‘Ten Little Indians’ by Agatha Christie. There’s a storm, and they can’t get off the island, and I just thought, ‘THIS IS AWESOME.’ ”

“Yes, a cozy mystery,” Heather Petsche, a librarian in Takoma Park, says knowingly. “Agatha Christie or Mary Higgins Clark. Not too graphic. The kind where there’s a murder, but it’s kind of behind the scenes, and it’s set in a vicarage.”

She has it all planned. “I would snuggle up and get my cup of tea, and read and read about old British ladies.”

Bring on the rain.

We contacted local librarians, booksellers, our own critics and other bookish souls for suggestions for what to read on a dark and stormy night.

To read for chills

Frankensteinby Mary Shelley

“It was written after a long spell of rain and stormy weather . . . which followed the eruption of a volcano in Indonesia, floods and a string of unusual and freaky earthquakes along the East Coast of the United States.” — Marie Arana, former editor of The Washington Post’s Book World

The Passage by Justin Cronin

“It’s a very well written post-apocalyptic thriller. [Several booksellers] read it at the same time, and none of us could come up for air. It’s definitely not one to read if you’re going to be home alone.” — Sarah Baline, bookseller, Politics and Prose

Winterdance by Gary Paulsen

“It’s about training for and racing the Iditarod — so much more intense than what’s likely to hit us this weekend. And he’s a great writer. It’s thrilling and scary, and will make you feel like you’re keeping a team of dogs alive as you cross the permafrost.” — Adrien-Alice Hansel, dramaturg, Studio Theatre

To read for escape

Message in a Bottleby Nicholas Sparks

“It’s just a quintessential love story, and a woman withstands a hurricane, caught between two loves. When I read it, I’m totally gone.” — April King, manager, Palisades Neighborhood Library in the District

An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy

“It opens with the power of overflowing riverbeds and changing courses through a multigenerational tale based in and around Calcutta, from early 20th century through days of Partition.” — Elissa Miller, associate director, collections, D.C. Public Library

To read with children

Noah’s Ark by Peter Spier

“It’s a wordless book, but there’s so much going on in the illustrations as the rain starts coming down. It’s almost like a graphic novel. There’s manure piling up, and it’s smelly, and you really get to feel bad for Noah and his wife.” — Wendy Lukehart, youth collections coordinator, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in the District

The “I Spy” series, by Jean Marzollo and Walter Wick

“My 4-year-old is obsessed with these books, and just two pages can eat up a half an hour. They’re the perfect books to look at with a flashlight.” — Tony Ross, librarian, Mount Pleasant Library in the District

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

“A reminder as we stock up on provisions at Costco and the Giant that all you really need in a flood is a jar of honey and an inverted umbrella.” — Frances Stead Sellers, The Post’s Style editor.

To read aloud

The Weir,” a play by Conor McPherson

“It’s a spooky play set in an Irish bar. Several people gather at this neighborhood pub, and they all tell ghost stories. And they’ve all come in from the rain.” — Shirley Serotsky, director of literary and public programs, Theater J.

Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder

“Last time we lost power, the whole family was lying on air mattresses in the family room, listening to the radio in the dark, when a production of “Our Town” came on, and everyone, kids included, listened with rapt attention. It was a moment for all time.” — Steven Levingston, The Post’s nonfiction editor.

To read for irony

Storm by George R. Stewart, and The Hurricane,” by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall

“A perverse case can be made for reading a novel about precisely what you are going through.” — Dennis Drabelle, The Post’s Book World.

What do you like to read when it’s soggy outside? Add your suggestions in the comments section.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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