Reading Outdoors Is Overrated

It has come to my attention that people continue to pretend to enjoy reading outside.

Like any romantic person, I'm sympathetic in theory. Actors in movies look great tucked into the crotch of some mighty oak with a classic spread open in their lap, or laid out on a beach towel in oversize sunglasses.

But in practice? Reading outside sucks. I suspect people who insist on reading outside read books only when they can be seen reading books, which is to say that reading for them isn't what reading is for me.

Read under a tree, and you spend half your time batting away spiders, ants, and other insects whose turf you've invaded. Plus, stuff from the canopy can fall on your head.

Sitting on a park bench is no better. Outdoor furniture designed for public use is hostile to human comfort. And to some people, the vision of a person with their nose in a book seems like an invitation to strike up a "friendly" conversation. "Whatcha readin' there?" "Interesting, interesting." "But wouldn't you rather be having sex with me?" Women report being particularly vulnerable to such nuisances.

"Beach reading" is the biggest goddamn con of them all. Good luck finding a resting position that allows you to read even a single paragraph without having to adjust and readjust. If you lie on your back, your arms get tired or your neck hurts. If you read on your stomach, your elbows start to ache and your neck still hurts. Even if you sprawl out in a beach chair, the sun will soon begin to boil your mind, rendering you sun-dumb. Your brain slows, your focus blurs, and your retention rate drops to zero. As it should! You're at the beach! You should be swimming! Or frolicking! Or swinging from some rope!

And what about that peculiar psychic disorientation that plagues the mind when the weather inside the book is drastically different than the weather outside the book? Maybe I'm a simpleton, but I have a harder time imagining someone ice-skating or freezing to death when I'm baking at Madison Park Beach.

By contrast, when the weather is something that's happening outside my window, it's easier for me to block out reality and focus on the sights, sounds, and rhythms the writer has so lovingly constructed for me.

Obviously you can read outside, and those of us who choose to do so are lucky to have the option. But the ideal reading situation involves a wingback chair with an ottoman (optional), a freshly brewed caffeinated beverage, cigarettes or some other fidgety thing nearby, and the cool monastic silence of an empty room. I'm sorry, that's just the way it is. (RICH SMITH)


Reading Outdoors Is Reason to Live

A person who thinks the only ideal conditions for reading are indoors must have something wrong with them.

Perhaps they are concealing an enervating and emaciating illness. Since when is the ideal reader this frail, consumptive creature who never leaves a room, who shivers when there's a knock on the door, whose nerves are shattered by the sudden whistle of a teakettle?

Reading is for the living, not the dying or the dead. Whenever possible, one must get out of the chair (or bed) and enjoy some fresh air.

Reading in the ambience of bees buzzing, birds tweeting, and the susurrations of leaves in the breeze is an exquisitely harmonious experience. Why? First: You have all the light you need. Second: You are a language animal, doing your language thing, just as a spider does its spider thing (spinning a web) between the stalks of flowers that are doing their thing (attracting bees and other winged insects). How can you fail to feel the wholesomeness of such an organic experience? One begins to sense a deeper meaning in Virginia Woolf's famous sentence: "Fiction is like a spider's web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners."

As for possible interruptions: So? One reads in nature precisely because the interruptions are pleasurable. What else is Roland Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text about but the enjoyment of interruptions? He claims that an erotics of textuality is not possible without them. You read some, you stop, you dream a little—and while dreaming, a butterfly passes by. Then you recall the most famous lepidopterist in English literature, the Russian American novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Then the image of the novelist chasing a butterfly reaches the surface of your promiscuous attention. But this image is soon dissolved by the recollection that the word for butterfly (babochka) and grandmother (babushka) sound almost the same. This enters and leaves your thoughts like that passing butterfly.

You return to the page, to its sentences, to the bliss of its words.

This is, in fact, how I read a good part of Marcel Proust's massive novel Remembrance of Things Past. I was in the middle of a forest near the Oregon Coast. On the banks of the river, I'd find a comfortable spot, open the thick book, and enter a long dinner party or an elegant carriage occupied by a handsome man and a gorgeous woman (the man is adjusting flowers on the woman's bosom). No one was there to see me read. It was just me, the rushing water, and the occasional wild turkey.

But if there were someone there, also reading? All the better. We would be hopping from page to page like those summer bees hopping from sweet flower to sweet flower. (CHARLES MUDEDE)