The Places We Read
On Solitude and the Reading Habits of Writers
I’ve read in a church loft during strangers’ weddings and funerals, on ferryboats on my way to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, on air-conditioned subways on blistering hot days, in bed for five minutes before I fall asleep, in the apartment above Shakespeare & Company that overlooks the Seine. I’ve read in Viennese coffeehouses, on transcontinental flights as the sun tints the sky a bubblegum pink, in the back of cabs as the city streets flicker by, discretely beneath my desk during Logic class, on lonely beaches, fighting with the wind just to turn the pages.
I’ve read in every possible space I can think of: bedrooms, living rooms, hotel rooms, kitchens, the woods, buses, trains, cafes, hospitals, malls, backstage in the wings. Where we read is almost as crucial as what we read. Solitude is hard to find; especially when you live in a city or share your home with someone else. There are always other things demanding one’s attention. That’s why it’s critical to create solitude amidst the chaos of daily life. Readers know this better than anyone else: Reading shields us from the drudgeries that surround us, provides opportunity for escape from otherwise chaotic environments. The places we read are inextricably linked with the books themselves, the mere recollection of which can become an exercise in nostalgia.
The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in The Poetics of Space: “And all the spaces of our past moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered from solitude, enjoyed, desired and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us, and precisely because the human being wants them to remain so.”
My grandmother likes to recall the precious moments of her childhood when she was left alone in her sunny Old Greenwich house, with what seemed like all the time in the world to read. She sought moments of literary escape whenever she could; so much so that when she was a teenager, she was fired from her first job after getting caught reading behind the clothing racks.
Children get very creative with their reading habits.
“When I was a little kid, my favorite place to read was at the top of the stairs in my parents’ two-story house: I’d plant the book and my elbows on the hall floor and then sprawl the rest of my body down the staircase,” says Laurie Hertzel, the senior editor for books at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “I don’t know why I thought this was a good spot, but I did—it was oddly comfortable. I was interrupted constantly by people wanting to go up or down the stairs (I have nine siblings, so there was a lot of traffic). Once my father dashed across the hall from the bathroom to his bedroom. He had just taken a shower, and he said, “Laurie Jo, I don’t have any clothes on,” and I looked up and he didn’t. I was probably scarred for life by that glimpse of his fast-moving bare butt, and yet even that didn’t deter me; I continued to read at the top of the stairs until I grew too big to sprawl comfortably.”
Stephanie Anderson, longtime bookseller at WORD and now the Head of Readers’ Advisory at Darien Public Library (and perhaps the most voracious reader I know), believes that the location you read in matters—so much so that she asks library patrons where and when they read in order to choose the perfect books for them.
“My personal experience ranges from the cozy and terrifying, reading The Secret History alone in my little apartment, soused on cheap red wine in the dead of winter in my rocking chair, to a crystal clear memory of reading Sideways Stories From Wayside School under my desk in fourth grade, feeling clandestine and brave, which heightened the power of the book over me,” Anderson says. “(As it turns out, I was not that clandestine. My teacher just let me get away with it.) Point at any book I like enough to have kept on my bookshelf, and I can tell you where I read it.”
The writer and publisher Michael J. Seidlinger, author of The Strangest and Publisher of Civil Coping Mechanisms, says that where he reads dictates what he reads.
“If I’m in a public place, it’s all about the quick read, the poem, the short story, the magazine article. Something I can turn to, read a line, extract an idea, and return to the sensory stimuli of my surroundings. It’s only when I’m perhaps lounging in a chair or in bed in the comfort and relative quiet of home that I really dive into long-form reading—be it a novel or something equally intensive. The shorter the work, the more it seems possible to fit into my commute, my casual stroll, my lunch hour; the novel, it waits on my nightstand, for when I’m ready to give it my hour’s attention.”
For some people, reading in transit provides much-needed time to lose oneself in a book.
“My favorite place for reading is on an airplane—the longer the flight, the better,” says the novelist Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow. “I read in cafes, on the subway, etc, but there is no space that allows me total immersion like a seat on an airplane. I think I can get completely lost because I am not remotely curious about what is going on around me. Further, there are no cell phones or emails to worry about. I get such satisfaction when I crack open a new book at JFK and finish it by the time I arrive at LAX. Novels are best read in one sitting, but how often do you have five or six hours with only one thing to do? I actually avoid red-eye flights because I don’t want to sleep away my reading time.”
The novelist and essayist Porochista Khakpour, author of The Last Illusion, is a late adapter to airplane reading.
“I read in silence and solitude—I don’t like any outside noise or distraction. I need to do whatever I can to get fully lost in the experience of the book. I am suspicious of anything that enhances or detracts from my reading experience.
Having said that, I have weirdly come to love airplanes for reading and writing! I work best there somehow. Partially because I’ve learned I have to (much travel this year). But also I like the physical confinement, and that getting up is hard, getting on the Internet is hard. Socializing is hard, all of it. Perhaps I need a seatbelt and recycled air in my own home office?”
I often think about spending a day off on the subway, staying underground for eight hours and reading an entire book. I find that the steady speed of the train can help me focus, at times, unless I eavesdrop on conversations or the car is so crowded that I start to feel claustrophobic.
“I find it hard to settle into a novel on public transportation, due to all the sensory distractions, but once I do, I get too immersed and miss my stop,” says Penina Roth, founder of the Franklin Park Reading Series. “In transit, I favor reading material that only requires short bursts of concentration, like short stories, especially flash. Lydia Davis is my ideal subway author. I save more challenging reading for the hour before bed, which may be why I have trouble falling asleep…”
Sometimes it’s the space that we normally don’t read in that lends itself to a sublime moment.
“Reading in public usually makes me want to go home,” says Carmela Ciuraru, a book critic, board member of the National Book Critics Circle, and author of Nom de Plume. “If I’m in a crowded cafe, I can happily read a newspaper, but if I tried to read, say, Wallace Stevens, within minutes I’d be annoyed by the din and get up and leave.
Even though I like the idea of going into the park with a novel and stretching out on the grass for a few hours, there are too many problems to contend with: humidity, insects, the too-bright sunshine, the onset of hunger, the need for a bathroom.
I read on the subway, but I’m always eager to get home (where my concentration is at its best) and keep reading. My favorite spot is on the couch, with my dog next to me.
There is an exception. About seven years ago, in Capri, I read Greene on Capri, Shirley Hazzard’s account of her friendship with Graham Greene, and of the years he spent there. With its dramatic cliffs and abundance of lemon trees and gorgeous flowers, it’s a place of overwhelming beauty. My experience of reading Hazzard’s exquisite memoir was greatly enriched by being on Capri. Wandering around the island, I got to see Greene’s house, his favorite local restaurant, etc. Some mornings I read on the piazza, but in this idyllic locale, reading in public was blissful rather than irritating.”
Sometimes it’s easier to read a book in a starkly different space than where it’s set.
That’s the case for Rob Spillman, writer and editor at Tin House. “I like to read in an environment very different from what I am reading about. For example, I recently read Helen Macdonald’s wonderful memoir H is for Hawk while in Panama. Cold, gloomy Cambridge felt all the more visceral to me while sitting in a hammock surrounded by palm trees. I don’t want to read Modiano when I am in Paris. I see his Paris more clearly while on the F Train in New York City. I don’t want ‘reality’ to impinge on my immersion in a text. Of course, afterwards my sense of reality is changed by the texts I read and when I next visit Cambridge and Paris, I will see them in a new light.”
It’s fun to read in exotic locales, but often the most meaningful time we spend with a book takes place in one’s own home.
Tom Beer, the president of the National Book Critics Circle, says that one of his favorite spots to read is his living room couch early in the day on weekend mornings. “I find my mind is most pliant then, and there’s a hush in the early morning—before all the activity of the city kicks in—that is most conducive to absorbing what’s on the page.”
He’s not alone. Sarah Gerard, the author of Binary Star, is another fan of morning reading sessions on the couch.
“Reading is a very important part of my morning ritual. My husband sleeps later than I do, so the first few hours of the day are some of the only ones I get to spend alone. I wake up slowly with a cup of black coffee and a book. The only comparable reading experience is on the weekend, when this morning ritual can easily come to last all day.
Once I leave the house, during the week, I try to squeeze in a few minutes of reading on the train and between appointments. In waiting rooms, or at bars, or on my lunch break. None are as wholly immersive as my experience on the couch, where time seems to expand all around me, and the morning could last forever.”
Matthew Specktor, author of American Dream Machine, is another couch reader.
“I suppose, like most people—although I’m sure I’m going to be surprised to discover the variety of others’ habits—I do my best reading supine. Rarely in bed; more often on the couch in the living room (it’s a couch that used to belong to my father, and which, in fact, has born witness to many of my crucial readerly experiences: I read the whole of War and Peace on that couch over a Thanksgiving weekend in Santa Barbara, and much of Proust when I was struck down for several weeks in my late twenties with chicken pox). I leave the sliding glass doors open, so I can feel a breeze and hear, too, the traffic down below on the street. As with writing, I prefer there to be some low-level noise while I read: traffic, wind in leaves, pedestrians talking as they walk below my balcony. (I believe there was an article in the New York Times a few years ago arguing that ‘cafe-level noise’ was ideal for creation, more conducive than silence.) Weirdly, I find it easier these days to write in public—surrounded by people in a restaurant—than I do to read under these same conditions. I suppose reading remains a truly private act for me, perhaps the last one. I’m not on Goodreads either.”
The writer Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing, finds that the chaise in her office is her preferred reading spot.
“I’m sitting on the chaise (or rather, semi-reclining) right now, and surrounding me are all the books I am immersed in, either for work or pleasure or both. I simply cannot read on screens. Not so good for the trees, but better for my brain. I find that with all the time spent looking at screens, it takes me a while to settle onto the page, and it helps to have a dedicated place to do it.”
Bestselling author Joe Hill, author of NOS4A2, finds that he’s most content when he reads on his back deck.
“My favorite place to read is a battered but comfy chair on the back deck, because the light is so good. For most of the day it’s flooded with sunshine, and there’s a nice view of trees out the back window. People tend to forget me out there, as well, so it’s a good place not to be disturbed. I nest: I’ve got my teacup and maybe a little slice of cake on a saucer. I’ve got my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on the floor, the newspaper, and the crossword puzzle. I’ve got my primary book, but I usually have a back up book, or The Paris Review close at hand as well. One thing I don’t have at hand: the devices. I leave the phone and the tablet inside where I can’t hear them.”
Good lighting is key. I remember straining my eyes many days in a row as a kid when, out of laziness and not wanting to stop reading, I’d start a book during the afternoon and continue reading as the sun set, not bothering to walk the few feet to the light switch.
There are places in the home that can be hazardous for books, but offer a luxurious way to relax while your brain does all of the work.
The novelist and memoirist Kate Christensen, author of Blue Plate Special, finds that one of her favorite spots is in the bathtub.
“For many, many years (decades, now), I have done almost all my reading in the bathtub. When I was renovating my current house, I found an old claw foot tub in the basement and had it installed upstairs in my bedroom. I generally spend two or more hours in there every afternoon, turning pages, refreshing the hot water when it cools. I keep a stack of current books on the shelf I had built next to the tub. I try not to let them get waterlogged, but that doesn’t always work; I have many bloated books as proof of this luxurious habit.”
Tim Horvath, author of Understories, finds that fake Adirondack chairs work really well for him.
“What else is the purpose of the cheap plastic Adirondack-like chairs but to stir up nostalgia? A couple of the best summers of my life were spent up in Vermont, whiling away the hours reading for classes at the Bread Loaf School of English. There’s something about such a chair, and how it comports the body—it has a sort of a grammar to it, like an elegant sentence, that makes the sentences you are reading themselves more shapely (mountain backdrop optional). The book that stayed with me was Andrew Sean Greer’s How it Was For Me, one whose gorgeous sentences hardly need any outside enhancement, but get it anyway from the chair, even the plastic knock-off version.”
Wherever we read, the aim is clear: to have an immersive experience. As Bachelard wrote: “Is there one among us who has not spent romantic moments in the tower of a book he has read? These moments come back to us. Daydreaming needs them.”
Listen: Dani Shapiro talks to Paul Holdengräber about the grueling nature of book tours, the difficult task of writing while reading, the “unthought known,” and… marriage.