Reading Spaces and Their Joys

On reading books in bars, Miles Klee for MEL:

Everyone else, I believe, is looking to unwind outside the walls of an apartment they can’t stand to spend another minute in. I happen to do this in bars because I love getting drunk and hate applying sunblock. I wait till the end of a chapter for another well-earned taste of my frosty martini. I escape into a doubled intoxication, transported by both the talent of professional mixologists who work with ingredients I cannot pronounce and the artistry of writers who convey worlds I haven’t been to. And the idle sound of clinking glasses calls forth imagination.

While I don’t relate to to the pleasure Klee finds in getting intoxicated while reading, I do relate deeply to the joy of finding a spot, your spot, for cozying up and reading your book. For the past year or so, I’ve rededicated myself to becoming a reader. More specifically, I’m forcing myself to read books that are not Tolkien’s Legendarium over and over again. I put in a solid couple hours of reading time every week, slowly making my way through Harry Potter for the first time, and lately a smattering of popular books on Christianity and Christian theology.

The only problem is, I hate reading at home. Being home makes me want to do anything else but focus on my book. Because there’s no real distractions, all the small ones become glaringly loud. The internet feels so much more available and attractive when I’m home. And there’s a pantry full of food I could be eating instead. Sitting or laying on my couch is too uncomfortable. (I have a bad couch.) Being on my bed just makes me want to sleep. And my legs are too long to take baths. There’s not a single good place for me to settle into a book while I’m home.

So I try to do my reading elsewhere. I haven’t ventured to a bar proper for reading, I suppose I should try it. My go to is the coffee shop down the street. Being out of your own private space encourages dedication to the task at hand. There’s a quiet joy in turning pages, sipping a coffee, and trying not get remnants of a cinnamon roll on everything while you tear it apart. The best reading happens not in isolated comfort chambers, but in places that could demand your attention in a million different way while you deliberately ignore them for the world of your book.

. . .

In no specific order, here are some places I have enjoyed reading.

On a train. An old rickety Boston T car. The seats face inwards towards the center the car. The forces of braking, accelerating, and rounding tight corners of the underground tracks makes your body sway around in all directions. The screeching and bad lighting and overall terrible experience of being on the subway are muted into a pleasant background when a book is hiding your face from the crowds.

Sitting on a tree branch. There's a perfect U-shaped bend of a tree branch at Walnut Creek Park in Austin. It hangs over the creek as it curves through a small ravine of sorts. The air is hot in the summer. My backpack is hanging on a root sticking out of the ravine wall next to me. And below me there's a bunch of people and their dogs enjoying the refreshing water.

In the car. Driving to San Antonio with my girlfriend. We brought each other books to read to each other while we take turns driving. She won't let me drive much, so I do most of the reading. The disgusting scar of a highway between Austin and San Antonio is much less grating and depressing to the senses when there's a good book to read aloud.

Boston Public Library. Not the new part. The old part. The old library building is ornate and baroque. The massive marble staircases, old dark wood shelves and tables. But the best part is the central courtyard, filled with pigeons and small metal tables. If you now where to go, and time it right, you can sneak out one of the windows onto a balcony in the courtyard where you're not supposed to be. The din of Boylston street is comforting white noise to accompany the book.

The park on the river. Auditorium Shores in Austin has some humongous open grass spaces. They are filled haphazardly with dogs and frisbees and people in fancy workout clothing. I will always find a small patch of shade from a stunted tree to hide my weak eyes from the brutal sun. It's kind of impossible to actually get comfortable while laying on bare hard grass, so I'm constantly grunting and adjusting, half pretending that I love reading in the park.

Bike shop. There's a bike shop in Austin that doubles as a coffee shop. It has the standard background environment of a coffeeshop: laptop keys clicking away, espresso machine steaming, quiet chatter, and people with headphones. But the constant background sound of a mechanic working on a bike. Or the click click click of a loud freewheel as the local riders walk their bikes in makes for wonderful distraction.

My bed. I've already said that I hate reading in my apartment. But there is one specific situation where it's perfect. After a long day has finally wound down and it's time to sleep, there's nothing better than climbing into bed with a book. I'll turn my light on, read two, maybe three pages, and be asleep before I know it. There's no pretense that I'll actually get any real reading done. In fact, when I return to the book, I start at the same place because I won't remember anything at all from the night before. But I have never experienced better sleep than the sleep you get with a book on your chest and the light still on because a book knocked you out.