Gulp or sip: How do you read?

I was chatting to a friend about A Suitable Boy and she mentioned that because it was so long she’d had trouble setting aside enough time to read it. It is long, but I hadn’t had that problem because I don’t think of reading as something I have to stop to do. I read in the interstices of my day. I feel I have to clear time to write—I need free time that’s also psychologically free time I write, if I have to go to the bank later that hangs over me and gets in the way. But I don’t feel like that about reading at all. I read all the time I’m not actively doing anything else—and even sometimes when I am.

Actually, I read all the time. I carry my book around with me and read on the bus, on the metro, or if I’m waiting for someone. If I’m going out, I check that I have enough to read to last me. I generally read one book at a time, but occasionally I’ll read a big heavy hardback at home and take a little light paperback out with me. If I’m really enjoying the hardback I’ll lug it along—I’ll always remember reading Anathem while going round Ikea with my mother-in-law.

I always read if I’m eating alone. I have in fact perfected the art of eating with either a fork or chopsticks in my right hand with my book open in my left hand. I can turn pages one handed with no problem. This is one of the reasons I prefer paperbacks.

I read in cafes and tea houses. I don’t think of this as going there especially to read, any more than I think of going there to breathe. I will be reading and breathing while I am there drinking tea, that goes without saying. I won’t read if I’m there with somebody else, or if I’m having a meal with somebody else. But if it’s just me, or if you’re meeting me, you’ll find me inside the book—and if I’m there with you, I’ll get my book out for the two minutes while you’re in the bathroom.

I read in the bath—and this is why I vastly prefer baths to showers. I haven’t figured out a way to read in the shower yet. I used to only read in-print paperbacks and current SF magazines in the bath, but since I moved here where I have a huge old bath and very hot summers, I have given in and now even read hardbacks, as long as they belong to me. (I have never dropped a book in the bath, though I know the story about the person who dropped in The Fires of Heaven and *schlurp* suddenly found the book had sucked up all the water and they were high and dry.)

I mostly don’t read when I’m sitting on the loo, but when I worked in an office I used to, and I’d finish my chapter, too.

I always read in bed, even if I haven’t had time to read anything all day. I don’t do this for any reason other than that I know no other way to fall asleep—I read until I am asleep, then I put the book down and take my glasses off and switch the light off. So even on the busiest, tiredest day, I read a couple of pages.

Now, I can if I want to sit down and read for an extended period of time, and I often do. Some books I have literally read without putting them down. If I am stuck in bed I’ll lie there with a pile of books, reading directly from one to the next. It’s the same when I’m on a long train journey on Amtrak—I’ll just read and look out of the window for days. (It’s great. You have such comfortable trains in the U.S., and so cheap. Wonderful way to get around.) There are some books that seem to repay more sustained attention, especially when I’m just starting them. Conversely, there are others that I enjoy in little bits but that get wearying when I sit down and read them for hours.

I have nothing against reading in great gulps—it’s just that I don’t find it necessary for enjoyment. Reading in little sips works too.

So I was wondering—how odd am I? How many people are like me, reading as they go about their day, and how many like my friend, needing clear chunks of free time to get into a book? Does it matter if it’s a new book or a re-read? Do some books require more sustained attention than others? Are you a sipper or a gulper?

Photo from Flickr user Caro Wallis


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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