A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
As you may have heard, the eastern edge of North America was recently hit by a hurricane with record-breaking properties, at one point it stretched over a thousand miles across. It was named variously: Sandy, Superstorm, or my favorite, Frankenstorm and ventured into areas where hurricanes normally don’t go, such as Ohio, where I live. While other parts of the country had severe flooding, sewage backups and gas explosions, the main problem in my locale was power outages due to lines downed by high winds or falling trees. The electric in my apartment building was out for 39 hours, from 9 pm Monday night until noon on Wednesday, October 31st.
The daytime wasn’t so bad, though it was quite cold and the pouring rain wouldn’t stop. But at night it was worse. I had LED camping lanterns setting around and most importantly, my Nook book light. Because what I did, in between “meals” of saltine crackers and applesauce, was read. I figured if the battery ran down on my Nook, I’d switch to traditional books, though surprisingly, my Nook lasted through the storm, as I finished a mystery and started on a memoir.
As the long nights went on, I’d pace the floor to warm up, before falling into a fitful sleep under several blankets. The lanterns cast patches of light, but the rest of the room remained dark, making it look unfamiliar. It also made my thoughts go down an unfamiliar path too, how much did the darkness influence writers of days gone by? After all, humans lived in partially dark houses for centuries. Even when we watch a costume drama such as “Downton Abbey” or “The Duchess” where the homes are lit by chandeliers and gas lamps, it’s not as dim as it truly was, because modern film needs a certain amount of bright light for anything to be seen on it. Probably the closest cinematic approximation is “The Libertine”, featuring Johnny Depp’s depredations in the 17th century. Not only is it filmed in a strange monochromatic lack of color, the the scenes of actors onstage at the theatre with bowls of flames serving as floodlights feel close and oppressive.
So the dark rooms with pools of light would’ve been the common working environment for people in any number of professions. Decades ago, I wrote a journal entry exploring the idea of candlelight affecting painters, most notably the golden hues of Rembrandt. But now I’m wondering about the part it played for authors. Did it set a mood where certain trains of thought came easily? Not just in the expected way for someone such as Poe, whose talking birds could’ve easily flown into a smokey corner. But what about the Brontes? Would someone as untamed as Heathcliff have been possible in a brightly lit penthouse? Did the dark nights emphasize the isolation of Emily Dickinson, making her really feel like Nobody? Was it the secret mysteries of the night that Shakespeare was referring to when he said “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”? Ok, I think we all know the answer to that last one, but I never thought of it as the opposite of daylight before.
Darkness brings out the primitive fears in us. We are more alert to danger, to the unknown, to how flimsily humans are made. Not just threats on the earth that we know of, but whatever our wild imagining can invent. Is the current fascination with vampires a teasing throwback that we can banish with the flick of a light switch? And would today’s sci-fi be possible in a candle-lit world? The adventures of Jules Verne were very different from the genre today.
The first night of the storm, the lightning went on for hours, flashing not only overhead, but on the horizon, behind the trees. Though I normally love to watch lightning, I had to admit that it looked especially apocalyptic just then. The next night it actually looked brighter, though the lights were still out. I kept thinking how many stars I could probably see, if only all those pesky rain clouds weren’t in the way.
Though the experience is not one I wish to repeat anytime soon, especially for that long, I was glad that I had learned something besides how little time it takes for all the food in the freezer to thaw. Hopefully, I can apply my questions about candlelight and fireplaces to future reading, even if I never learn the answer, it might add an extra dimension to understanding the book.
Jackie is a wildlife artist who tried painting during the storm, but found the low light too challenging. You can see some of her work painted in brighter times at this website. The photograph is one she took out her apartment window on another dreary day a couple years ago.