Stacks that Shine (or, Illuminating Literature)

It’s the flash and glare, the speckle, the flare of colour refracted through the camera lens that simultaneously blinds and binds me. The haze of a dawn, with the sky shot through; the shadow and the shade, the soft movement of time tapped out across a blank wall. I watch and wait for it to dip, to dim. The flicker of shadow when driving in and out of woodland on a sun drenched day, the glare unexpectedly bouncing off a window across the street – gold and glimmering. The echo of a sunset. The mirror that drinks it in white and spits it out a thousand colours. And the leaves of the tree that dapple globes across the sidewalk. The magic hour.


It’s what I’m good at.

I notice it. I see it creep around the edges of my vision. I’ll spend hours watching the day dip across the sky, and expertly map the light in the rooms of the house, shifting with each season (it waxes and wanes as the moon does). I’m not a patient person, but I’ll wait for the good light. Maybe it’s not patience at all, but obsessive chasing and delirious dips when I can’t find it, and when it eludes me I’ll be in a mood. But when it’s good, it’s so good. Good light bounces off the gilded spines of my books. Good light is a halo upon the heads of those I love. Good light in the kitchen will get me out of bed on a slow Sunday morning – bouncing off the tiles and squaring the square of my toast; curling into the steam of the coffee cup. And when it’s not good, I stay in bed and search pages upon pages to see light though the eyes of another.

It’s the prose, not the plot that I search through – for light is not to be found when the heroine is in the midst of her quest – but it’s in the quiet, and in the stillness. Pages that aren’t rushed, that are instead slow and languid and meandering and maybe the only thing I do have patience for.

Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose: maybe the beginning of my obsession with Virginia Woolf, and definitely an aid to my obsession with light, Too Much and Not the Mood is at its core, a book of interior spaces. A book of buildings, of daylight looking “curiously divine when it shines underground through subway grates”. It’s a book of small spaces, nook people, introspection (alas, I am undoubtedly an extrovert that also seems to hate people. A curse). Chew-Bose speaks so ardently on the desire to be in darkness, but of course, she speaks of the darkness in relation to the light.

Crudo by Olivia Laing: a book of absolute terror in the wake of what is happening in the world today – trump, brexit, Grenfell tower, the icecaps melting, a summer so unbearably hot it’s no wonder the end is nigh – yet Laing infuses the narrative with light. Hope? Maybe. Or maybe just beauty in the apocalypse.

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh: set in the silence of an isolated island, this book feels like the novelisation of a Sofia Coppola film, with prose that’s soft and feminine and shot with light.

M Train by Patti Smith: the words of a photographer will probably be forever suffused with light and so it goes in Patti’s second memoir M Train. A musing on the simplicity of life and the rituals that keep us alive, Patti recognises the magic of light and laments the search that I too seem to be forever apart of. When recalling a visit to Sylvia Plath’s grave, Patti most keenly remembers the thick honeyed autumn light, joyous and perfect and the source of an elation only a true romantic recognises.

Night Photograph by Lavinia Greenlaw: published in the year of my birth, this collection of poetry begins with the epithet
Always remember the moon is a sunlit object.
Expose accordingly.
I always forget the moon is the mirror of the sun, and we turn to it in the darkness to glimpse a fragment of its brilliance. Never quite the same, but a ghostly image, and a reminder of how we can be mirrors too. Of what, I’m not too sure. But I think what I may reflect is the essence of who I am – never truly understood by myself (for I’m sure the moon doesn’t know her own nature), but maybe understood by those who see the reflection.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima: I want to read this book again. I want to read one chapter a month. Beginning in Spring. For it begins in Spring as a mother and her daughter move to a new apartment in Tokyo. There are windows on all sides, and it glows at all hours of the day. With each chapter comes a new month, and a shift in their lives and in the light.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: I vowed I would never reread this book. It was too haunting, too harrowing. But I did. Of course. Self destruction etc. And when I did reread it I saw the light that shone through the darkness. I noticed the perfection with which Yanagihara articulates light in a city – a place that’s oft seen as dirty and dark – that is seen in the moments of mundanity of those that live there, light that makes the mundane magic: “the other aspect of those weekday-evening trips he loved was the light itself, how it filled the train like something living as the cars rattled across the bridge, how it washed the weariness from his seatmates’ faces and revealed them as they were when they first came to the country, when they were young and America seemed conquerable. He’d watch that kind light suffuse the car like syrup, watch it smudge furrows from foreheads, slick gray hairs into gold, gentle the aggressive shine from cheap fabrics into something lustrous and fine. And then the sun would drift, the car rattling uncaringly away from it, and the world would return to its normal sad shapes and colors, the people to their normal sad state, a shift as cruel and abrupt as if it had been made by a sorcerer’s wand.”

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto: read on the flight home from Tokyo, my copy is now littered with ink underlining the light Yoshimoto sees – sunlight refracting through glasses of green tea, the warm glow of a person, the morning light as it wakes you up.

And so in the darkness of winter, when the light cannot be found, read these books instead and wait for the light to warm you up, to blind you, to mark the passing of time, and to illuminate the pages you read.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s