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.
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.
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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 Cookstr.com; and as a journalist.
Books mentioned in this post
Will Schwalbe is the author of The End of Your Life Book Club