Read ’em and retreat

I still have the J. Finnemore book on Robin Hood on my bookshelf. It’s a book I must have read a dozen times when I was around 12. I read the book, ran outside to play Robin Hood, then ran back in to read the book all over again, bracing myself for the emotional ending – spoiler alert – in which Little John finds Robin at a monastery, betrayed by the prioress, who lets out too much blood and lets Robin bleed to death.

John picks him up and carries him to the window so that Robin can shoot one last arrow to mark where he is to be buried.

That is a beautiful, beautiful ending to a book. Try to visualize the last scene with human beings, though, and not with a bear holding a fox (thanks Disney).

But I digress.

What I meant to say was that as much as I loved Robin Hood, it was just as wonderful finding a book that I could drown in, that would take me to a new place and introduce me to new feelings. I used to be a regular at our school library even in high school, but by the time I graduated from the university, I had somehow lost my connection to books.

I still thought of myself as a reader. Yeah, I was a big reader. Hobbies? Reading. I read a book here and another there, and I read non-fiction, books that had “real value” to my work and therefore, my life. I was being a smart reader.

But I always knew something was missing.

Even when I made a career change and became a writer, I still didn’t read as much as I thought I did, or as much as I wanted to. First I had to go out with this pretty Swedish lady I met and then there was the marriage business and then the kids and the work, and well, listening to podcasts is almost like reading, amirite?

About four years ago, a friend posted on Facebook that she had read 135 books that year.

“Huh,” I said to myself. “I wonder how many books you read this year, you handsome devil.”

I counted up to eleven and rounded it up to twenty. I wasn’t happy.

“Family Meeting!” I shouted and once we were all gathered around out kitchen table (Ikea, MELLTORP), we agreed that we’d become Readers. Between the four of us, we’d read 200 books in 2016. A book a week.

We hung a big wall calendar on the wall and wrote down our books whenever we finished one.

“It’s not a competition, but I’ve read 28 books,” I could say proudly by midsummer that year.

We did reach our goal and we’ve kept at it ever since.

Last August, my wife Jessica and I were sitting outside, reading books but it was a hot summer’s day. I took a break to sip some lemonade and to glance at Twitter. And I saw somebody retweet a message from a “Reading Retreat”.

Click, click, click, click.


Pause to think whether Jessica would like it. Nod to myself.

Click. Booked.

“Hey, Jessi, we’re going to a reading retreat in January,” I said.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a place where you read and they’ll take care of you. And you eat and read.”

“Nice! Where’s that?”

“Let me see … a place called ‘East Sussex’.

Yes, I will admit it, thinking about “East Sussex” in the scorching sun in August probably gave me a misleading mental image, but since we travelled to Eastbourne from -5C Stockholm, the 8C that awaited us was almost heavenly.

As was the retreat.

Once we got back home, I’ve told everybody that it certainly exceeded all my expectations – even though I didn’t have any. I had never been to one, I didn’t know what to expect, except for some quiet time to read.

I got that, and so much more.

For three days, I was in another world where nothing was real and nothing to get hung about (to quote the Beatles). Each day began and ended with fantastic food, with snacks and lunch sprinkled in-between. The other readers were lovely people, and by the second lunch, they felt like old friends.

Sophie Hannah made the trip down to our Agatha Christie themed retreat, entertaining a roomful of Agatha fans with her stories of her Poirot books and how she’d come to write them.

Sometime in the afternoon of Day 2, I realized that I had actually forgotten my mobile phone in my room, and hadn’t noticed it for hours!

And then, on Thursday afternoon, sixteen hours before it was time to leave the bubble and re-join society, it happened.

I was reading “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” in the (silent) reading room, in one of the comfortable chairs by the window, with a cup of tea and snacks on the side table, when I got that wonderful sensation of being completely engrossed by the book.

I wasn’t reading it, I was in it.

For a brief moment, I had captured that elusive feeling I had been chasing for years.

The next morning, as Jessica and I were getting ready to leave the beautiful retreat, our new friends, and our hosts, Sara and Cressi took it up a notch.

It wasn’t as dramatic as the last chapter of Robin Hood, fortunately, and I’m not going to spoil it for you, but believe me when I say that it was a beautiful, heart-warming send-off.

A storybook ending.

First posted on the Reading retreat website.

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