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On the Where of Reading

By Sina Queyras

It doesn’t matter where one is someone said recently, thinking, reading, working, that happens anywhere. As someone who grew up on the move, quite literally upended at a days notice, I have always thought that is true. You make the best of where you are whether that’s three days in a car, spending the holidays at a motel thrust up like a tent in the middle of nowhere, or in a train station overnight in Lyon.

Reading in the utopia of airplanes is quite total.” So says Lisa Robertson in “Lastingness,” an essay that discusses, among many other things, reading Lucretius in the British Library. Reading in libraries was once overwhelming to me. I recall walking into the biggest library I had access to as a teenager—the old Vancouver Library, now a record store if I recall on Burrard and Robson—and despairing. How was I going to get through all of these books? Where would I start, and how would I proceed? Reading in such an environment always made me feel as if I were trying to hold back a wave with my hands, the books threatening at any moment to pull me under.

Ours was not a literary house—books were not fetishized as they were for Woolf: “the books gently swelled neath my hand…” We did not have a bookshelf, let alone a library. It took a long while, and a year of working in a college library, to get the lay of the land. I have not, I’m sure, come close to reading all of the books captured even at that moment in the Vancouver Public Library, but I feel less overwhelmed.

I like to read in water, which can be difficult. I used to build rafts out of driftwood and push myself out into the big, deep lakes of my childhood with, I would love to say a book, but the truth is it would normally be a comic book in hand. Fortunately there were no currents and I never got very far because the lakes really were big, deep, and wild—often with nothing or nobody for hundreds of miles around. Occasionally I have been fortunate enough to rent a cottage in the Ottawa Valley and I find the urge for the makeshift vessel as strong as ever. I can bind together a half-dozen pink floating noodles, slap on a low lying lawn chair, grab a book and float. I could take a canoe, but I prefer the provisional nature of the raft.

I’m not such a romantic that I think I need a bucolic setting to work in, but I know there is a relationship between where I am and what I think. The problem is there isn’t a formula. I can’t say I think better on my noodley float, or in the New York Public Library, but I know where I feel better. I have fantasies about certain perfect reading environments. The Seattle Public Library designed by Rem Koolhaas, for instance, what if that was where I read on a daily basis? Would my thoughts be sharper? Would I suddenly be able to read theoretical texts with more ease? Would my notes be more stylized? Would my thoughts rise to the surroundings? Would they be stark, the lines clean, conceptual, without stray words or emotion?

The space of a train or a car, or a café, each with a sense of interiority and movement excite my readerly imagination. I want to be away from my laptop when I read, though now it’s impossible to read without taking notes, and now that we’ve all begun taking notes on our laptops is it possible to read without the screen near by?

Regardless of where or what I am reading, I am acutely aware that the space I am in does have an effect on my thinking and reading, and one assumes, writing. Is this something you have noticed to?

Comments (15)

  • On January 30, 2010 at 8:41 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

    I love this. You brought back memories of my own childhood reading. We had a small bookshelf, and frequent trips to the public library. I also stewarded a few decades worth of National Geographics in my room. I often read sitting by them, on the shag carpet, hunched over, with one of the leather-bound volumes opening up the world to me.

    These are wonderful thoughts to play with right now, thinking about how to arrange my new reading/writing spaces. I look forward to watching the conversation ripple. (Your rafting sounds dreamy.)

    Thanks for a wonder-full post.

  • On January 31, 2010 at 2:45 am sassjemleon wrote:

    i generally read in 3 places: the bathroom, on the toilet (where my father kept porn, i keep poetry); the train, to and from work if i’m not too drowsy; and, my bed, which is probably the best place on earth (according to my wife).

    i don’t take notes when i’m reading on the toilet, but i do dog ear pages that strike me as being particulary up my dark little alley, worthy of a return trip that may or may not materialize. in other words, i’m always planning something, and planning is important because it means i still believe i have a future, which provides me with a certain bump in the quality of my life, an edge to lean on–an edge that won’t bleed me to death.

    i don’t take notes on a computer/laptop–ever. i still enjoy picking up a pen and pulling out a notebook. i currently keep a black notebook in my black bag on the train, and i also keep a purple notebook in the nightstand. eventually, the notebook colors will change when they are filled with lines, fragments, and the rare quote or two. i remain rooted in the grand tradition of the rectangular object filled with white paper and baby blue horizontal lines.

    occasionally, i will also read at the kitchen table; usually when i’m beginning an evening of drinking and some soft music. i will read at the table until i’ve had enough liquor and feel like dancing to some very loud music, much to the chagrin of my daughter who is probably trying to watch some very sedate disney show. being a highly competitive sort, she will try to out volume the stereo with the television’s surround sound system, but that works about as much as her trying to out volume me, especially when i’m drunk.

  • On January 31, 2010 at 8:02 am Mabool wrote:

    There aren’t very many good books out there so it’s usually not a problem, but I try to avoid reading in the library, because any time I come across a good book I turn into a GIANT DUNGENESS CRAB.

  • On January 31, 2010 at 9:05 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    On a lighter note, I might have had modernist fantasies as some of these folks did.

    http://unhappyhipsters.com/

    Very funny.

  • On January 31, 2010 at 9:33 am evie wrote:

    very funny, indeed!

    unlike mabool, i find there to be no end of good books (perhaps i say “great” where s/he says “good”?) and thus have developed the capacity to read absolutely anywhere. i can tune out neighbor noise, coffee-shop conversation, train station announcements, subway din, people shrieking in the pool. i can read while walking (and without stepping in the path of cars), though i have learned this marks you as a total geek.

    airplanes are not my reading utopia — but reading on planes is a fabulous defense against polite chit-chat and captive audience horror.

    i like to read in a comfy chair, with something good to drink at hand. i like to read while i’m eating, if i’m eating alone. i never read books at a desk, but i read on-screen at my desk all the time. this used to be painful, before i got a good desk chair; now, i can read on-screen without thinking so much about my body. i read your post at my desk, sina, and enjoyed every minute of it.

  • On January 31, 2010 at 9:39 am Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    Sina, thank you — I wish I could find the quote from Bergson in Memory and Matter (or possibly Matter and Memory…I always get hem mixed up) about reading and memory/reverie. How reading opens us to our own “time,” which is writing. So your question is somatic in the deepest sense. Let’s see. I used to hide behind the long red velvet curtains in the back room at 38 Eastcote Road, which my parents bought (along with an ornate chandelier) in a random, excessive attempt to be more English, my knees tucked up to my chest, in a salwar chemise and legwarmers, to read D.H. Lawrence. I was 14, for example, when, on a warm day, my father ripped the curtains back from the French window that opened to the back garden, and tore “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” from my hands. The memory of fashion accompanies the memory of reading.

  • On January 31, 2010 at 10:08 am Peter Greene wrote:

    A most enjoyable series of reveries. We’ve gone from Sina drifting in a (pink tubular) Twain-esque reverie to D.H. Lawrence behind red velvet. Thanks for the journey, folks. I like Mabool’s Giant Dungeness Crab. A pair of ragged claws topped with avid eyes. Myself, I’m more with S.J.Lemon here – notebooks everywhere, bookmarks jamming them, dogeared favourites strategically scattered across my potential roaming. The only difference there is that I do indeed write in the bathroom, shamelessly. Think of that when you’re old and grey and requesting permission to handle my sainted, archived moleskines and ringbinds.
    P.

  • On January 31, 2010 at 10:14 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    It’s interesting how intense the memory of reading is, and personal, even though we are often reading with such intensity in places such as airplanes and subways. I used to take note of the books and people reading them on the A train in particular–it was fascinating.

    Love the image of your father snatching away the DH Lawrence. I was thinking of Bachelard, but yes Bergson too.

  • On January 31, 2010 at 3:15 pm pam lu wrote:

    Your raft-reading sounds fantastic.

    For years I tried to read on my daily train commute. I would sit on the upper deck of the train, where there were two columns of single seats separated by a wide gap overlooking the lower level. I thought the semi-privacy of this arrangement would foster my absorption in the book, but actually I found myself fidgeting a lot, looking up constantly, getting distracted by the movements of fellow riders across the gap, or by the yawning gap itself. Nowadays I do my best reading on a crowded subway, the more crowded and noisy the better. My concentration seems to increase in direct proportion to the number and proximity of other riders, the effort required to simultaneously resist and accept the crush of collective public intimacy.

    Though whenever possible, my favorite reading position is semi-recumbent in bed, trapped beneath the goodly weight of two or three furred animals.

  • On February 1, 2010 at 10:12 am james stotts wrote:

    my boy is 1+1/2, i let him turn the pages. he’s not very patient so we only read poetry.
    read walden at walden pond.
    don’t drink when you read, or you’ll have to excuse yourself.
    against a tree is a good place to read in the city. sittingon a chair while reading seems to ruin it, there are always better, dirtier places to sit.

  • On February 1, 2010 at 12:00 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Habits change, too. I used to read in cafes, now I simply can’t do it…can’t really write in them either.

  • On February 1, 2010 at 12:23 pm Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    Sina, I also can’t, though I had a whole mythology connected to the writing in the cafe. Why do you think you can’t, yourself, anymore?

  • On February 1, 2010 at 12:48 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Good question. Is it age? The fact that I have a room of my own now and an office of my own and spend so much time writing? When I’m out I want to be out…and I would rather be moving than sitting in a cafe. Don’t spend too much time in cafes period. I walk. I walk and walk and walk then I go home and write. I write, I walk, I write I walk.

  • On February 1, 2010 at 11:25 pm Peregrine wrote:

    Best place: Back right-corner seat facing the front in an old city bus at night. Legs curled, feet on backpack, shoulder crushed into the window, rain beading and flicking against the steamed glass. Book on knees. When we hit the highway, the driver extinguishes all of the forward lights, and the few passengers who aren’t sleeping bump awkward hands in the dark to turn on the seat-lamps. Four of us remain illuminated in the back, silent under fluorescent panels, reading. Half an hour in a constant metal shudder through Ladner and along Mud Bay, rain sliver-shadows under the fingers and orange streetlamps to the side, painted lines and pages keeping time until we have to get off.

    The in-between places with built-in humming: airport security lineups, ubiquitous chain cafes, food courts, Metro platforms, laundromats. Sofas in front of elevators.

    I may change my mind about the best place if I ever buy a couch.

  • On February 2, 2010 at 12:18 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    “read walden at walden pond” very nice.

    It’s true, having a comfortable chair and couch in my office makes it difficult to think of reading elsewhere…but definitely appreciate the “in between places with built-in humming” the humming is very good.


Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, January 30th, 2010 by Sina Queyras.