As a critic, I read for work. Or rather, I read and then work to translate that experience into something others might read. The hope is that they’ll then be compelled enough to also read, if it’s any good, the thing I wrote about me reading. That’s a pretty meaningful exchange for a reviewer.
People ask if I’m actually reading all these books, and how I can possibly find the hours. I don’t mind the question. I enjoy the give and take, and the talk of immersing oneself in a story. And anyway, there’s plenty of time. At the doctor’s office, the airport, in line at the DMV. I knew a guy who could finish half a novella in the shower, don’t ask me how.
Reading requires — especially today — intense discipline and the capacity to sit still and engage. It’s a skill you can develop, this quieting of the mind. Some books make it easier than others, sure, but the fact remains: A strong reader is a champ at refusing the sweet mutter of distractions. That damn laundry can wait and you know it.
My favorite place to read is in a dark bar mid-day. Although I can read almost anywhere, we’re each allowed our preferences and mine is so. Coffee shops feel pretentious, the gym is freaking weird. Libraries are fine but there’s so much candy and I can’t handle it all calling my name. The last thing I read was The Conversations by Cesar Aira, and I devoured it in this quaint little dive up the road from my house. Aira’s stuff is super meandering and detailed and it requires all of my senses working in unison; the bar is always close to empty when I go, so it’s everything I need.
Bars, especially the ones I read in, are gifts. They’re warm and brooding, and if you go early enough, it can be just you, a bartender, and enough open space to react to plot twists without judgment. All that’s happening is the cleaning and the setting up shop for the lunch crowd. And so I’ll sit with a book. Sometimes I’ll even stand a while, which I did through part of the closing section of Wise Blood.
On average, I receive anywhere from five to 10 books a month; a relatively small number compared to some critics I know. They’re sent to me by publishers and authors anticipating I’ll give their work the shine they believe it merits. It’s strange to feel that control, and I marvel at it.
I’ve always got stacks of books in a backpack and a mental log of places to lose myself in. So, on certain days I shove off someplace and pick a spot, usually a booth with the entrance in view. No matter where I go, I need to see who comes in and who leaves. Preparedness or paranoia, not sure which it is. Both.
Anyhow, do this: single out a bar or two. Make plans, let’s say for a Wednesday between meals. It all depends on their hours of operation, as some bars open by 10am and others not until after 2pm. Don’t drive too far. Don’t go anywhere just to look at your phone, either, because your phone is not the point. Bring a book, sit. Look up every so often and make eye contact with the bartender. If you must, order something small. Be decent. Read.
Juan Vidal is a writer and cultural critic from Miami. He tweets at @itsjuanlove.