Wednesday 24 January 2018

Great places to read a book

Kilmainham Gaol
Kilmainham Gaol

Where is the best possible place to read a book that you cannot, a) tear yourself apart from or, b) find any time to read? Most people will say it's in bed at the end of a long day or on a morning you don't have to work. The latter allows for a cup of coffee to accompany the experience and the former generally acts as a sleep aid.

Hardbacks are no use for the side-sleeper as the book is just too heavy and cumbersome. The side sleeper has to make do with a paperback of some description. The sitter-upper (I'm just inventing words now) can read whatever they want but are probably borderline insomniacs anyway.

I remember reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and I recall being utterly captivated by the story which was narrated by a young girl who kept drawing me in to the point that I had to 'steal' time from a given day to facilitate my 'need' to spend time with my book.

The fact that I'm quite a slow reader doesn't help matters. I've never understood the whole speed-read phenomenon. Don't you miss the elegance of each word as you make your way through a story?

I love to enjoy a paragraph, dwelling on the occasional phrase or a word that I haven't heard of before (Alan Bennet's The Uncommon Reader is peppered with these). I would imagine that speed readers suffer from sporadic bouts of literary indigestion but it's not something I suffer from, so I don't know.

But back to Never Let Me Go. It's a peculiar book that reads like a cross between Blade Runner and Enid Blyton, an intriguing mix with a cruel twist added to keep you on your toes. It's not a book that everyone loved (it came out around eight years ago) but for whatever reason, it got me from the start and I had trouble finding the space to be with my book due to a gazillion other commitments.

I tried the usual tricks of turning off the television and going to bed early, but it was never enough -- and then I remembered the car wash. There used to be a car wash near my mother's house and there was always, without fail, a long queue because of the quality of the wash. If you had nothing to read, it was torture as you sat there for 45 minutes waiting for the guys to dispatch one client after another (It was the early Noughties, even writing this feels like an economic history lesson) but if you had a paper or a book, you were in business.

I was coming close to the end of the Ishiguro book and needed to have a run at it without interruption. I considered my options and only one was bullet-proof, distraction-wise, and so I hopped in the car and hoped to God that the queue was as long and tortuous as ever.

It was a bright day, people had money in their pocket (borrowed) and one car after another had pulled in for the full wash and dry. With great pleasure and a perverse satisfaction, I took my place at the very end of the line. I finished my book that day. The car wash is no more.

And so, it's time to find other, economically more sound, places to hide away and finish my book. As I'm currently off the radio, I was able to finish Colm Toibin's Brooklyn this morning at home, drinking tea but still distracted by thoughts of a book I have to write and a chat show that needs presenting . . .

In the past two weeks I have been driving around the country on what can only be described as a busman's holiday, researching my book on JFK's visit to Ireland in 1963. In the course of my search for new photographs and documents, I have found a sub-culture of like-minded souls. All around the country there are clusters of bookish

history buffs who run museums and heritage centres.

Young Patrick Grennan is a direct descendant of the Kennedy clan. He lives at and works on the Homestead in Dunganstown.

It's a treasure trove of memorabilia and stories from that extraordinary visit and beyond.

Patrick gives tours himself and his unbridled enthusiasm keeps the story alive. I was struck by the enthusiasm of those running the Galway City Museum, tucked away near Spanish Arch.

There's a small but perfectly formed exhibition dedicated to President Kennedy's visit to Galway in June 1963. It's lovingly curated and complements the various other exhibits which cover local and national history.

The reason I tell you all this is because there is a fine coffee shop there too and this is where the post-boom book lover can find peace of mind without being driven to distraction.

People who visit museums are generally of a quiet disposition and aren't inclined to shout into mobiles or march into a café with a bunch of lads. The museum café is a little slice of heaven.

The same can be said for the National Gallery, another bolt hole from the madness of city life. A brisk stroll through the portraits (Maeve Binchy and Gay Byrne are among those 'hanging' around there) or a walk through the Jack B Yeats room offer food for the soul before you make your way to the open-plan coffee shop which allows you to disappear into a corner and into a good book.

The Museum of Country Life in Castlebar, a similar museum in Cavan and the likes of Kilmainham Gaol offer sanctuary for the weary book lover who just wants to be alone and yet among their own. These are the types of venue that welcome literary refugees who need space, peace and time.

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