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Modris Eksteins reading in his armchair in his Toronto home on March 7, 2012.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

When books are at the centre of your life, there can be no special place assigned for reading, just as there can be no special place for breathing. You read everywhere and wherever, all the time – and feel alive for it. I grew up in a house full of books; the dining room was in fact the library, other rooms mere annexes for storage.

My house, too, is now full of books; we sometimes wonder how much longer our aging Edwardian construct will be able to bear the weight of Gutenberg's legacy and Diderot's folly. If disaster befalls us one day, it won't be because of tornadoes churning north from Dorothy's Kansas, or local gas leaks itching for a visiting spark; it will be because Wilfrid Laurier's two-by-eights couldn't in the end withstand the pressures of time and particularly tome.

Yet there is a favourite bay window with a threadbare wing chair where the coffee stains tell of much heavy breathing. Odo, our Leonberger, likes the corner, too, for its historical aroma. The current stack of volumes piled there, high as always, includes Pico Iyer's The Man Within My Head, Eric Metaxas's Bonhoeffer, Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, and the remarkable pre-1918 diaries of Harry Kessler, translated as Journey to the Abyss.

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Central to all these accounts, fictional as well as historical, though that is a mostly arbitrary distinction, is the idea of the unexpected, the accidental, the mysterious and mystical.

Modris Eksteins is a historian at the University of Toronto. His prize-winning books include Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, and Walking Since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World War II and the Heart of Our Century, This spring, he published Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery, and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age.

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