How to read a book? Lingering on every word, pausing at each turn of the page, traveling to far away places along with the characters? Or devouring the words, eager to get to the end, wanting to understand the main idea as quickly as possible so that you can move on to the next sentence, to the next page, to the next book?
Clearly there is no right or wrong way to read a book.
There’s the way my academic background taught me to read: anxious, eager, stressed, ready to discuss, debate, question. The moment a book is mentioned, sensing the judgment or guilt of not having read it, or the pride and ego of having read it. Stressed when looking at my long reading list, sad from thinking “How will I ever read all these books?” or “I don’t have enough time to read.”
A recent experience helped me wake up to my suffering around reading, which I’ve come to name reading anxiety.
With Mudita Mindfulness Community
, we read a book, together, from cover to cover, very slowly. It was, in fact, the slowest
and most enjoyable
book reading experience of my life.
We met once a month on a Saturday afternoon for 2 hours at a member’s home. We brought little gifts, prepared tea and snacks and found our little comfy spots around the coffee table. This was the most intentional I ever have been with reading. Not just making time for it, but preparing the right mood and environment for it as well.
None of us wanted the stress of another deadline – we said NO to the responsibility of reading the book before we meet, coming ready to discuss. Instead, we decided to read out loud and read to each other. We took turns, filling the room with our sweet caring voices.
Every few pages, we paused, closing our eyes, letting the words settle, reflecting. We asked questions, thought out loud or shared what the words evoked in us. When ready, we read a few more pages.
At the end of each reading afternoon, we looked forward to the next one. We finished the book in 3-4 months.
Our reading hours felt nourishing. We loved discovering what everyone took away from the words we heard, sometimes similar things, sometimes entirely different. Connections were made that wouldn’t have been made if it wasn’t for the other people in the room.
For a few hours every Saturday afternoon, we belonged to each other in cozy living rooms, and we belonged to the thoughts, emotions and sensations of reading.
My partner makes fun of me for how I smell my books. I can’t trace this funny habit back to when it started, but to this day, when I hold a new book in my hands, smelling it is one of the first things I will do. Sometimes the book will smell of all the years it has survived, sometimes it will be clean and fresh. Sometimes it will smell cozy, like you want to smell and re-smell it, and sometimes it will be chemical and moldy. My favorite books are always the ones that smell like my other favorite books - a funny association my mind makes, as I get to know a new book with interest and care.
Our five senses help us find grounding in the present moment. What better moment to employ our five sense than reading?
Seeing the words, smelling the pages, listening to how the spine breaks a little as you continue to hold it, touching the textures of paper and pen as you underline, tasting fully the aromas of that gulp of coffee or tea you may have nearby.
What a bliss.
What a wonderful little mindfulness practice.
Paying attention to how your body finds (again and again) a position on the couch, how your fingers are waiting ready to turn the page the moment your eyes catch those last words on the bottom right corner.
Naming the emotions, the thoughts, the beliefs carried across the pages into your imagination.
Sending gratitude to the author who labored over the text for hours, the printer who delicately printed, the publisher who binded and distributed. Noticing the grand play of people and actions that pinnacled into that copy you are holding in your hands.
Reading as a mindfulness practice - THAT is reading, if you ask me. Not what I was doing before, in my “academic” reading.
Reading as a great love story.
Reading as a chance to slow down.
Reading to remember the wonder of your inner child, disappearing into a story, next to a dimly lit bedside lamp, in the middle of a quiet night.