Reading Habits

Find a new reading habit

We talk about a big game about reading rituals, we book people. A comfy chair, a blanket, hot cocoa, a cup of tea, a perfectly matched beer, a glass of your favorite whiskey. I’ll probably be talking about reading season like the next person, about summer on the balcony or autumn on the bar terrace, about the ideal space and time I want to read.

But despite this, I don’t actually have any reading habits—other than those satisfying moments of getting a finished book in its proper place on the shelf.


I’ve been thinking about rituals because I spent part of the last week engrossed in Byung-Chul Han’s wonderful short book “The Ritual’s Disappearance.” It’s more like a long essay of about 90 pages, in which Han deconstructs ritual’s place in society and what it means in a world that doesn’t value ritual. In his introduction, he writes: “This essay is not motivated by a desire to return to ritual. Rather, ritual serves as a backdrop against which our present age may stand out more clearly.  … Along the way, today’s The pathology will become apparent, most importantly the erosion of community.”

There’s already a lot to unpack here, and that’s it for the whole little book. Not every point of the author resonated with me, but a lot of it did—lots of ideas about communication without community, and the destructive power of capitalism’s emphasis on production, and the simple line, “Time passing by is not habitable.” Han cites writers and philosophers over the decades, including The Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who “described rituals as Temporary skills for yourself to feel at home in the world”.

This sentence stunned me. It seemed to encapsulate a lot of what had been missing for the past three years (if not more) – describing what I never thought of as ritual, but if you look at it from another angle, it really is. What is authorship if not a ritual way of presenting a work to an audience? It has its norms, its traditions, some of which should be broken. If pre-orders aren’t a rite of passage, what is? What’s more to going to a concert than the ritual of collective enjoyment? What’s a restaurant, a friendly greeting to someone at the bar next to you, a festival, a movie? They are community ceremonies, and only some of us can safely participate in them right now.

It would be foolish to take an interest in personal, isolating rituals from this book alone, but in times of fraught gathering, maybe we need more of these tips—ways to make ourselves feel more at ease in the world, Even in the real world. Isolated and on our own. Let me put it another way: this is absolutely what I need.

But honestly, I don’t know what that looks like.

I’ve read a lot about writer’s rituals: blank pages; candles and a clean table; strategies for ending the day with unfinished sentences so you know where to start in the morning. But we’re here to talk about reading, and I know from comments, social media, reading articles, talking to friends that reading hasn’t been what it used to be in recent years. We have a hard time focusing, and we’re constantly battling our usual favorite genres and authors. We’re slower, we’re more forgetful, we read three pages and then look back and realize we didn’t remember anything, or we skim through and just remember the highest high and lowest low.

Perhaps the first step is to allow ourselves to make this all right.

In September, I started working out seriously. (I promise it won’t be about the glory of working out. Guaranteed.) For specific health reasons, I’m determined to get into the habit of doing this — something I don’t want to do — that will help me get stronger.

It’s a ritual. I change. I fill up the water bottle. I turn on the program with the energizers and they tell me what to do. I put a cushion in the tight space between the desk and the bookcase. Maybe I wear shoes, maybe I don’t, it depends on the class. I push to play. Then I try. I swear, I complain, I revise, I laugh on the coach’s digital face. I can’t do everything. Sometimes I lie on the mat and moan. But I took steps. I performed a workout ritual. I am in it. Perfection is unnecessary.

I don’t want to suggest that reading becomes a chore, something we force ourselves to do. (Though in the process, this practice ritual stopped being something I forced myself to do and started to become something I looked forward to doing.) But maybe just sitting down with a book and hoping we can suddenly focus, notice The duration of the effort, the money required, or even just the energy to keep reading—maybe it’s not giving ourselves enough reading opportunities.

Sometimes, even now, this happens. I’m halfway through The Ritual of Vanishing on a Saturday morning, which seems to be the time I like to sit and read for as long as possible. I’ve been reading nonfiction and reading individual chapters in between doing other things, using them or something like a little palate cleanser that allows me to shift gears more smoothly.

But sometimes, reading time just takes for granted for me. I’m hunched over dinner, I’m flipping pages on my phone, half in, half out, or I’m flipping through an article in one tab, Wordle in another, Slack in a third, and I focus entirely on one of the tabs. Sometimes, we are lucky if we can read; sometimes, we are still lucky. Some of us make too many demands on our own time, other people’s need for care, homework, long workdays. Reading time feels like a luxury.

So let’s enjoy ourselves. Let’s find something that will help us settle down and allow us to detach from the outside world while we read, however briefly. Set the stage, make tea, pull out the blanket you had prepared for the purpose, and then completely forget about it, out of sight and out of mind because it’s in the closet. If you can, put your phone in another room. Take whatever steps work for you. Then read them again and again until your mind and body know that this is what you are doing: allowing yourself to temporarily do nothing but read.


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