On Reading

On Reading‘What a mess! Why Don’t you clear your night stand after you finish a book?’
My friend had came over to help me clean my room. I had a broken arm and couldn’t manage it myself.
‘No, stop! I’m reading them!’
She had grabbed four books and was about to put them on a shelf.
‘All of them?’

I’ve always been an avid reader. When I was a kid I made a deal with my mother: I could buy as many books as would fit into my palm. Only after I’d finished all of them could I buy new ones. With great effort of my wrist tendons, considerable stretching of my fingers and intricate games of balance, sometimes I managed to make eight titles fit into one hand.

Now that I buy my own books I’m what my friend calls a ‘schizophrenic reader’.

It’s not true, though. I have my own logic. I’m not able to read two novels at the same time. I get mixed up and I don’t enjoy either of them. I don’t read things too similar. They have to differ. Not necessarily in topic, since I often go mono-thematic, at least as to genre or style. Say I’m into my romantic-relationships-phase, I’ll read a philosophic take on love in modern times, a collection of witty stories on being dumped, choosing the wrong one, letting go of the right one and so on. Then an essay from a sociological point of view on romance in the Facebook era and a collection of heart-ripping love declarations. By contrast, I would read non-fiction on loneliness and the stream-of-consciousness account of a woman living in isolation. It might take me months to finish one book. But besides simultaneity, which isn’t that rare by the way, my reading habits are not at all odd. So I asked around.

The reader community is a quirky one, quirkier than I thought. And to read its dirty confessions felt as thrilling as discovering your mum’s shoebox full of an ex-boyfriend’s love letters. After all, every book is kind of a love affair. When I was still an unexperienced lover every literary purchase felt like a courtship. I’d go to the book shop, I’d look at it, leaf though it, read some random bits. Then I’d put it back. It’s not wise to show too much interest on a first date. I’d wait a couple of days, then come back. After a while I’d go to the book shop even only to caress the book covers. I’d finally give in. Once I was sure it was the one, I’d burn with anticipation. The commute home would feel excruciatingly longer than usual and I wouldn‘t be able to keep my hands off it. At home I’d stroke it, I wouldn’t lose sight of it, but I’d know I’d still have to wait until we went to bed. It would be there where the magic would happen. Ours wouldn’t be a night-time- only relationship though. I’d take it everywhere. I’d like to know it was always there, at my disposal. When the story would come to an end, I wouldn’t hold a grudge, I’d soon forget. So in case I’d want it back, we could start anew.

But now I’m more disenchanted, I don’t pay so much attention to foreplay anymore, I get straight to the point. And what interests me really, is what other people do when they get down to the serious business.

‘I like to light a candle’, ‘ I always smell it first’, ‘I succumb to guilty pleasures’, ‘ I read the last page in advance to take some pressure off’, ‘ I’m charmed by a worn-out look’. ‘I like to do it on the rug’ ,’On the tube’, ‘on a spot with a view’.’ ‘I like to do it in complete silence’.

The weirdest habit I’ve heard so far is of a woman who used to chew the corners off pages. ‘Why?’ I asked her.’I don’t know. Since I couldn’t bite my nails, ‘cause my hands were holding the book, I bit the pages, I guess’.
I ran this informal study among bookworms and writers aged from their mid-twenties to mid- forties asking about preferences, rituals and any weird custom they might have in relation to reading.

Unexpectedly, only a few mentioned the cover. One said it does matter, another prefers paperbacks and smart formats.

Three people spoke about e-book readers, two as a complementary medium for reading, one on the impossibility of using it, since she couldn’t place her finger between pages to mark the spot she wanted to reach.

The majority reads whenever they can, before going to sleep, on the commute, on the loo.

Same goes for place, anything will do, in bed, on the bus, on the loo.

Writers in particular seem to be multiple readers. Some will read according to their mood, which can change frequently as will the book being read. Poetry for a pondering mood, philosophy for the analytic one, crime for fun, for example. Others will read depending on their concentration levels, something literary or non-fiction when the mind is sharp, something historical or fantasy when it’s tired. There are those who will read following their current interests, trying to get some inspiration, and those who will read following their current projects, trying to research.

Most of those I interviewed have a book to which they keep coming back, either for consultation, because it contains an ever-valid wisdom, or for comfort, because certain sentences will always make the reader feel a certain way.

Some talked about ‘book hangover’ after a really good reading, others are keen on slowing down to the point of stopping the more they are enjoy a book, dreading the feeling of abandonment once it’s finished. There is a collection of short stories I started ten months ago. I read a story every couple of months the same way I enjoy a glass of my most refined port every now and then. I don’t want to finish either of them.

Not as many people as I thought feel obliged to read a book till the end or to read it linearly. Skimming is allowed, leaps too, and if it’s not enticing, no regrets in putting it back in the book case. ‘Life‘s too short to read a bad book till the end’.

One admission in particular made me feel like when I was twelve and read the sex-advice columns in Cosmo with my best friend behind a bush halfway between my place and hers.

‘It feels a little embarrassing to unveil my reading secrets to you,’ she said, as if she had just told me about the kinky stuff she likes to do in bed. I giggled like a teenager, glad I was the one leading the interview.

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