In Anne Fadiman’s book Ex Libris, she has a chapter in which she explores the delights of what she calls You-Are-There-Reading experiences.
I’ve never equaled the sensory verisimilitude of my friend Adam, who once read the ninth book of the Odyssey, in Greek, in what is believed to be the Cyclops’s cave, a Sicilian grotto Homerically redolent of sheep turds. But I have read Yeats in Sligo, Isak Dinesen in Kenya, and John Muir in the Sierras. By far my finest You Are There hour, however, was spent reading the journals of John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who led the first expedition down the Colorado River, while I was camped at Granite Rapids in the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Ever since reading this, I have sought out my own You-Are-There-Reading experiences around the world. Naturally, some of these experiences have been at gravesites. There is nothing quite like reading poetry or correspondence aloud at a grave.
I think what is so amazing when You-Are-There-Reading-At-A-Grave is that you experience a closeness to the author by virtue of being close to his or her physical remains while, AT THE SAME TIME, experiencing a closeness to the author by virtue of making contact with their soul through their words.
As John Milton says, “For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”
A text always seems more emphatic and memorable when read in the place it is set, or that it describes, or where its author was from, or where its author is buried.
Here are a few of my favourite memories of reading at gravesites:
Reading Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy at Arendt’s grave at Bard College in New York
Reading the Latin correspondence of Abelard and Héloïse at their tombs in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris
Reading Hannah Senesh’s poem “Blessed is the Match” at her grave in Mount Herzl Cemetery, Jerusalem