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What I Learned from Reese Witherspoon's Ideal Reading Situation

And how to read more books this fall.

Every Sunday, I grab the New York Times from our apartment's front stoop, and begin dividing it out. I hand Jonah the Sunday Review, recycle Sports (neither of us are fans), and take the Book Review for myself, at which point I flip straight to my favorite series, 'By the Book.' Every week, it features an interview from an acclaimed writer, often a celebrity, on their reading philosophy—i.e., what they're reading, favorite genre, etc. The result is a peek onto America Ferrera's nightstand, or the book Lauren Groff reads at least once a year. But one of my favorite recurring prompts is: Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

Reese Witherspoon answered a few weeks ago, "Well, I should start by saying that I don’t get my ideal reading experience ever. [...] But in theory, it would be alone in a cabin by a lake. I’d be by myself, with no one interrupting me to ask where their other shoe is, or where the car keys are, or to tell me that I’m needed on set." J.J. Abrams answered similarly, "Even the question breaks my heart; we have three children, so this magical reading place and time you’re suggesting doesn’t really exist in our current reality. But the ideal one? I’d say it would involve a sunny day, a shady tree, a comfortable blanket, no obligations and a book." I've read at least a dozen responses that mentioned WiFi-free plane rides, and Author Amy Tan even wrote, "I’ve often fantasized I would get a lot of writing done if I were put in prison for a minor crime. Three to six months. Incarceration would be good for reading as well." 

It isn't hard to spot the pattern: I'm busy... but if I wasn't, I'd go to a place free of distractions to read. Okay, makes sense—I'll be sure to pack extra books next time I go to a remote cabin with a reading chair basked in tree-distilled sunlight, or prison. My own "cabin by a lake" or "shady tree" is actually a coffee shop, in a big leather chair where no one disturbs me between cups of pour-over, an endless parade of almond croissants, and Norah Jones singing over the speakers. Bonus points if it's raining out. (For the record, Bryan Cranston agrees. He wrote, "While shooting in Portland, Ore., I got the pleasure of discovering Powell’s Books[...] I just curled up in a comfy chair and read.[...] I suppose it helped that it was a rainy day. Rain creates a Pavlovian response in me to relax with a good book.") But the reality is that I live in a city with 284 sunny days a year, compared to 144 in Portland, and most cafés in L.A. cater to socializing or screen-writing, with stiff-backed chairs and tables. My leather chair fantasy is as elusive as Amy's prison cell. 

When I read both Reese and J.J.'s responses, I immediately empathized with them. I'm usually out of the house from 6 AM until 8 PM, at which point I'm cooking dinner, spending time with Jonah, and getting ready for bed. Who has time to curl up with a book, for more than a few pages? At the same time, Reese and J.J. would probably look at my schedule and think, "No round-the-clock production schedule? Wide-open weekends? No kids? She has plenty of time." Encrypted in their answers, from voracious readers who "don't have time to read," is the importance of making time to read, rather than waiting for the ideal situation. Reese concluded: "The reality? It’s 10:30 at night. Everyone else in my house is asleep, and I read for an hour in a bath or in my bed. That’s when I get most of my alone time." Jonathan Franzen responded to the same question, "If I’m loving something, I suddenly discover large chunks of reading time that I wasn’t aware of having." And I've had similar experiences. It comes down to prioritizing reading, by occasionally bumping it up above going to the gym, scrolling through Instagram, and even spending time with friends and family. 

Over the past few weeks, as my pile of 'must-read' books has literally grown on my coffee table, I've made a vow to myself to prioritize reading this fall. Some ground rules help: I try to pick up a book for ten minutes before turning on the T.V. (ten minutes frequently turns into 30, or longer), turn off my phone as soon as I get home, and create an environment—with Norah Jones and comfy pillows—that approximates a coffee shop in Portland. It isn't a perfect science, and I still often wish I had an almond croissant nearby, but I completed two books last week just by making a few small changes.

And when in doubt, I'm reminded to get creative with finding time. Dan Brown wrote:

"The most pleasurable reading experience I’ve had recently was just last week—jogging on the beach with an audiobook of Malcolm Gladwell’s “What the Dog Saw.” I was so engrossed in his essay “The Ketchup Conundrum” that I ran an extra mile just to find out how it ended."

And just like that, you have another book to add to your list.  

P.S., I share your ideal reading situation and tips for prioritizing reading in the comments below or in our Facebook group here!

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