In Search of New Reading Rituals

We talk a big game about reading rituals, we book people. Comfy chairs, blankets, hot cocoa, a cup of tea, a perfectly matched beer, a favorite whiskey. I’m as likely as the next person to say something about reading seasons, about summer on the balcony or fall on the bar patio, about the ideal space and time in which I’d like to read a book.

But for all that, I don’t really have any reading rituals—save for that satisfying moment of putting a finished book in its exact right place on the shelf. 

Do you?

I’ve been thinking about rituals because I spent part of last week engrossed in Byung-Chul Han’s brilliant short book The Disappearance of Rituals. It’s more of a long essay, 90 or so pages in which Han deconstructs the ritual’s place in society, and what it means in a world that doesn’t value them. He writes in the introduction, “The present essay is not animated by a desire to return to ritual. Rather, rituals serve as a background against which our present times may be seen to stand out more clearly. … Along the way, the pathologies of the present day will become visible, most of all the erosion of community.”

There’s already so much to unpack here, and the whole little book is like that. Not every one of the author’s points resonated with me, but so much of it did—so much about the idea of communication without community, and the destructive power of capitalistic emphasis on production, and the simple sentence, “Time that rushes off is not habitable.” Han quotes writers and philosophers from across decades, including The Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who “describes rituals as temporal techniques of making oneself at home in the world.”

That phrase stopped me short. It seemed to encapsulate so much of what’s been missing for the last three years (if not longer)—to describe the things that I had never thought of as rituals, but that are exactly that if you look from another angle. What is an author event if not a ritual way of presenting your work to an audience? It has its norms, its traditions, some of which ought to be broken. What is a preorder if not a ritual of hope? What is going to a concert but a ritual of collective enjoyment? What is a restaurant, a friendly greeting to the person on the next barstool, a festival, a movie? They’re rituals of community, and only some of us can safely take part in them right now.

It would be foolish to only take from this book an interest in personal, isolated rituals, but at a moment when gathering is fraught, maybe what we need are more of these techniques—ways to make ourselves feel more at home in the world even in isolation and on our own. Let me rephrase: What I need is absolutely this. 

But to be honest, I don’t know what this looks like.

I’ve read about writers’ rituals plenty: The blank page; the candle and clear desk; the tactic of ending a day’s work with an unfinished sentence, so you know exactly where to start in the morning. But we’re here to talk about reading, and I know—from comments, from social media, from reading essays, from talking to friends—that reading hasn’t been what it used to be, these last years. We’ve struggled to focus, and we’ve struggled with genres and authors we usually love. We’re slower, we’re more forgetful, we read three pages and then go back and realize we retained nothing, or we rush through and remember only the highest highs and lowest lows.

Maybe the first step is to give ourselves permission for all of this to be okay.

In September, I started exercising in earnest. (I promise this is not going to be about the glory of exercise. Promise.) I was determined, for specific health reasons, to get into the habit of doing this thing—this thing I did not want to do—that would help me be stronger. 

It’s a ritual. I change. I fill my water bottle. I open the program with the peppy people who tell me what to do. I roll out a mat in the narrow space between desk and bookcase. Maybe I put on shoes, maybe I don’t, depending on the class. I push play. And then I try. I swear, I complain, I modify, I laugh in the instructor’s digital face. I can’t do everything. Sometimes I lie on the mat and groan. But I took the steps. I did the ritual of exercise. I’m in it. Perfection is unnecessary.

I don’t want to suggest that reading become a chore, a thing we make ourselves do. (Though somewhere along the way, this exercise ritual stopped being a thing I made myself do and started being a thing I look forward to doing.) But maybe just sitting down with a book and hoping we’re going to suddenly have the focus, the attention span, the wherewithal, even just the energy for sustained reading—maybe that’s not giving our reading selves enough of a chance. 

Sometimes, even now, that happens. I read half of The Disappearance of Ritual on Saturday morning, which seems to be a time that I like to sit with a book for as long as possible. I’ve been picking up nonfiction books and reading single chapters in between doing other things, using them—or the other things—like little palate cleansers that enable me to shift gears more smoothly. 

Sometimes, though, reading time is something I take for granted. I hunch over dinner, flipping pages on my phone, half in and half out, or I flip between an essay in one tab, Wordle in another, and Slack in a third, my mind fully on none of them. Some days we’re lucky if we get to read at all; some of us have too many demands on our time, other people to look out for, homework, work days that run long. Reading time can feel like a luxury.

So let’s luxuriate in it. Let’s find the things that help us settle, that let us shut out the rest of the world for the time, however brief, that we’re reading. Set the stage, make the tea, get out the blanket you got for this express purpose and then absolutely forgot about because it was in the closet and therefore out of sight and mind. Leave your phone in another room if you possibly can. Whatever steps feel right for you, take them. And then take them again, and again, and again, until your mind and body know that this is what you’re doing: giving yourself permission to do nothing, for a time, but read. 

Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. Sometimes she talks about books on Twitter.

citation

Back to the top of the page

12 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.