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The 11 Best Places to Read

When I think of my favorite books, I often remember exactly where I was when I first read them. Sometimes the associations are wonderful, and along with beloved characters and a fascinating plot, I'll recall a particular chair or a porch by an ocean. I first read David Copperfield lying on a small patch of grass outside my grandmother's house in Westport, CT. When the book comes to mind, I can almost smell the freshly mown lawn.

Sometimes books summon memories of places far less desirable. I've read books while standing on hot, crowded subway trains and while sitting on the floor in airport corridors during endless delays. In my book, The End of Your Life Book Club, I write about the books I read with my mother when she was dying of pancreatic cancer. During those two years, I often read while spending hours in hospital waiting rooms or doctor's offices, or while sitting beside Mom when she was getting chemo. And though I don't look back fondly on any of those places, the books I read in those spots have special memories for me; I remember them helping to take Mom and me out of those settings. They brought us from there to elsewhere. The books bring back memories of those places, but in a way that brings me gratitude both for the books and for the time that Mom and I had together.

So while I can and do read just about anywhere, and acknowledge the powerful role books have played in helping make almost-intolerable situations tolerable, I do have certain favorite places I love to read. These are places I seek out when I have a book in hand. And I like to think there's a kind of art to pairing the perfect place to read with a fitting book.I like to think there's a kind of art to pairing the perfect place to read with a fitting book.

Here are 11 of the best places to read a book, and some thoughts about what kinds of books fit each place.

1) Trains have given me some of my best reading experiences. There's something about the rhythm of the rails that suspends time and concentrates my mind. I used to be a travel journalist and, in 1985, was given one of the world's best assignments — to go by train from Hong Kong to Berlin, taking the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian railways. It was on the train from Irkutsk to Moscow that I read War and Peace. What could be better?

2) Bars in quiet restaurants or in hotel lobbies are excellent for reading. If I'm in a strange town and have to eat alone, I always feel sad and awkward at a table. But sitting at a bar with a book in hand and something nice to eat and drink, I feel like an international man of mystery. My favorite bar reading? Spy novels and thrillers. I recently read a good chunk of Chris Pavone's riveting and atmospheric The Expats while at a restaurant bar.

3) A chair by a roaring fire. I know it's a cliché, but the crackling sound and the warmth are wonderful accompaniments to reading. And the fire acts as a kind of hourglass — you can put on another log and dive into another chapter or read until the fire goes out. Roaring fires make me want to reach for hefty books of historical fiction, books like As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann or Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.

4) Parks are great for reading. We have a little pocket park right outside our building with benches, daffodils (in spring), and a statue of a very handsome doughboy, a World War I memorial. I think parks and poetry go well together, and the doughboy makes me feel I should read Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen.

5) A comfortable chair. Any comfortable chair screams for a book. Any book.

6) The public library. Some of my greatest reading experiences have been in libraries. I especially love open-shelf libraries, big and small, because that way you can just happen on random books, and you can wind up reading a book you never thought you would like. It's a great place to experiment with different kinds of books and different genres. And being surrounded by other readers reminds you of this great thing we all have in common.

7) Coffee shops these days say "laptop" to many people. To me, they still say "book." For some reason, I find myself itching for nonfiction in coffee shops. It was in my local coffee shop (Café Minerva on West 4th Street, NYC) that I read, appropriately, a brilliant and gorgeously produced book by a friend, Jamie James, called Rimbaud in Java. It mixes history, literary criticism, and "imaginative reconstruction."

8) Airplanes provide lots of time to read, and some of my most memorable reading experiences have been in the air. Many people complain about plane travel, but I still love it. The actual plane travel that is. The getting on and off the plane and the delays I could do without. But once I'm settled in with an absorbing book, I'm very happy. Some people like to bring one fat book on a plane, but I like a small stack of novellas and short novels, because I'm never sure what my mood will be.

9) Any porch with a hammock, daybed, or Adirondack chair. Porches are designed for reading, talking, relaxing. Some of my best reading experiences have been on friends' porches, especially when they've left a selection of books for me to read. I'm not a beach reader — too much sand, too much glare. But a porch or deck overlooking a beach is the best of all possible worlds, especially when reading a book that a friend has selected just for you.

10) Bed. This is where I do most of my reading. This is where I read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and Christopher and His Kind by Christopher Isherwood and The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat and a dozen Alistair MacLeans and hundreds of my other favorite books. My informal poll shows that most people who read do a lot of their reading in bed.

11) If I'm reading at the breakfast table, it means that I'm so absorbed in the book I was reading when I went to sleep that I can't wait to get back to it. So some of my favorite books are bed AND breakfast-table books.

I'm sure you have your own favorite spots to read. I would love to hear not just where you love to read but which books you've read in those places.

÷ ÷ ÷

Will Schwalbe is the author of The End of Your Life Book Club and coauthor of Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better. He has worked in publishing (most recently as senior vice president and editor in chief of Hyperion Books); in digital media, as the founder and CEO of; and as a journalist.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. A Fine Balance
    Used Trade Paper $6.50
  2. The Dew Breaker Used Trade Paper $6.50
  3. Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage Used Trade Paper $9.95
  4. Wolf Hall
    Used Trade Paper $8.95
  5. As Meat Loves Salt (Harvest Original) Used Trade Paper $5.50
  6. War and Peace (Vintage Classics)
    Used Trade Paper $11.00
  7. The Expats
    Used Hardcover $8.95
  8. David Copperfield (Vintage Classics)
    New Trade Paper $10.00
  9. The End of Your Life Book Club 1st...
    Used Hardcover $8.95
  10. Christopher and His Kind (01 Edition) Used Trade Paper $15.00

Will Schwalbe is the author of The End of Your Life Book Club 1st Edition

3 Responses to "The 11 Best Places to Read"

    Brent Allan February 18th, 2014 at 11:25 pm

    I knew it was going to be a long flight, so I picked a book that I knew would require zero distractions to get through. It was my flight from Detroit, Michigan to Nairobi, Kenya. Actually, the total flight was Detroit to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Nairobi, Nairobi to Juba, South Sudan and Juba to Lopeet, South Sudan (a village literally not even on the map that the Country publishes themselves). The book, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Now I love Dickens, but I am not too proud to admit, what with the old English and often unnecessary details and rabbit trails, he is hard to read. So, a 20 hour flight would prove perfect for Dickens. And it did. And now when I think of Pip and Miss Havasham, I will always remember Africa. In hindsight, Hemingway would have been great Africa material too.

    DeLalla June 26th, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    I grew up in a troubled home ( when Dad was there) so I would tuck a book in the back of my pants and climb the highest tree in my neighborhood. From that vantage point I could see my house a ways off and my mother knew she need only call once in my direction and I'd come home. Up on my perch in the top of my tree sanctuary I read Lord of Of The Flies and East of Eden. I felt joy and sorrow tucked away in the enormous trunk hideaway I made in our old Chevy while reading Where the Red Fern Grows and Tuck Everlasting. I adore reading. I'm not sure I would still be alive today if not for books. It's impossible to list them all. Now I get to checkout your books! I love this post. Happy reading.


    Michael July 11th, 2014 at 4:18 am

    Trains seem to be great places to read... I tend to get much more reading in, when on a train - although the down-side to this, is missing your stop (which has happened many times to me).
    Quiet pubs are nice - and sometimes you can kill two birds with one stone and get a great armchair by a well maintained fire.

    Many thanks for sharing this.


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