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July 5, 2006
It was just an unfortunate coincidence: the nation's observance of Independence Day doesn't always coincide with my own Day of Dysfunction, but this year it did. I could see it coming: recent weeks have been full of people and large events, at which it was imperative that I be sparkling, and I was displaying unmistakable signs of being sparkled out: didn't want to do anything, go anywhere, see anyone, talk to anyone on the phone. I wanted to read. Work in the garden. Putter around the house. I began to experience innocent questions asked of me -- like "Where were you born?" or "How was your day?" -- as almost physically painful.

Even writing, a solitary pursuit if ever there was one, seemed freighted with too many interpersonal expectations. I began an eMo on the Declaration of Independence, in honor of the Fourth, but almost immediately knew it would end up a Jeremiad, one more among many on the Op-Ed page this year. I began to worry about the effect of this on my readers, who also read the newspapers. So I said the hell with it and pressed "delete."

J. M. Coetzee's latest book, Slow Man, filled the bill. He is South African and the book is set in Australia, far enough away from here as to make it unlikely that I would have to do anything about any of the characters or about the author. There was time to start another: Reflections from the North Country, a book of essays by the late environmentalist Sigurd Olson. I won't have to do anything about him either, he being dead and all.

Books have no need of you. They wait on the shelf. They wait for you: they don't bustle down the hall after you with a sheaf of little pink While-You-Were-Out notes, to which you must attend or risk hurting someone's feelings. No: books sit and wait for you. You encounter each other at a time mutually agreeable.

They remind you how smart you are. How much you know. Books reintroduce you to the spaciousness of your own mind. What an imagination you have -- you are able to assemble a picture of everyone you meet in a book, down to the condition of his shoes, if that is your desire. And you rediscover your passion: you become so committed to your image of a character that the movie version always annoys you a little when it comes out: Oh, please, you say to yourself, she doesn't look anything like that.

And you can stay in your book as long as you wish to. As long as you need to, if you need to. Until you're good and ready to come out. Until you can come out and be sociable again. It might take two or three books to reach that point, but a Day of Dysfunction is something that just can't be rushed. It just takes as long as it takes.
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