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The Art of Reading at the Bar

At a previous job, almost every day around 3 p.m., I did what my co-workers called “the book thing.” This entailed slamming my laptop shut (to forcefully cut the flow and chatter of work), putting on a hoodie or jacket, grabbing a book from my bag, and whisking out of the office as if I’d never come back. In theory I was going for a solo lunch with a favorite novelist as my companion, but I’m sure my colleagues knew it didn’t take me an hour to buy and eat two slices of pizza across the street. What I really did was eat fast and then hop a few doors down, to a quiet dive bar, where I could read and drink beer.

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I’m not about to extol the ritual of drinking in the middle of a workday, blessed and beautiful as it may be — that’s another essay for another time. But I do want to make the case for combining your boozing and leisure reading, even if it’s cocktail hour or later. There’s a meditative comfort in sharpening your mind with a devilish story even as you erode your brain with alcohol; the hobbies complement one another so that the pleasure of each seems more refined. (Distilled, you might say.) A softening of inhibition allows you to drift down deeper into the page. It is easier, in the dim bar light, to be hypnotized.

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You could drink and read at home, to be sure, but only if you relish being distracted by the living room clutter you haven’t cleaned up, the clomping of upstairs neighbors, an active Netflix account and just how perfect your couch is for naps. Choosing to read in a bar marks a firm commitment to the act, much as taking your laptop to write at the coffee shop means you’re significantly less likely to open PornHub for a masturbation break. There is the expectation, when you walk into your local pub with a poetry collection in hand, that you will be reading poems, not a constantly refreshed feed of Twitter notifications. You owe that to yourself, to the bartender and even to the bar.

There may still be interruptions. It’s not uncommon for a fellow bar patron to ask what you’re reading, in some misguided attempt to create a social dynamic. “Friends” of mine have suggested that this is exactly what I and other bar readers are after — the attention of hot, intellectual strangers, which must be secured via the pretension of posing in a public space with the latest Yuri Herrera translation. Frankly, I’m insulted that anyone would question my preference to not interact with strangers, but fine—I will deign to briefly summarize a book aloud before I return to its isolating coziness. To the bold woman who recently snatched a novella from my grasp at a bar to study the jacket flap: That’s a much-too-invasive maneuver, but it was Venice Beach, so what did I expect?

Would you accuse someone of seeking notice by reading on a park bench? Or during their subway commute? How about at the beach? Okay, maybe if it was Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Everyone else, I believe, is looking to unwind outside the walls of an apartment they can’t stand to spend another minute in. I happen to do this in bars because I love getting drunk and hate applying sunblock. I wait till the end of a chapter for another well-earned taste of my frosty martini. I escape into a doubled intoxication, transported by both the talent of professional mixologists who work with ingredients I cannot pronounce and the artistry of writers who convey worlds I haven’t been to. And the idle sound of clinking glasses calls forth imagination.

The imperfection of a bar as reading nook — the anticipation of a rowdy nightlife crowd and postseason football on those ceiling-mounted TVs — means that a stolen afternoon with the place to yourself is all the more enchanting. You analyze the rhythms of business and clientele, figuring out not just where to go, but when. To the bartenders, you’re the ideally relaxed regular, sipping steadily, tipping well, and always polite. Maybe you’ll trade book recommendations. Your presence during the bar’s daily lull becomes a secret shared between the two of you and the author, a collaborative residency that smooths and streamlines the joy of surrendering to fiction or immersive fact.

It requires practice, and you’ll no doubt experience a dose of awkwardness at first. Don’t give up! Claim a secluded stool or booth and dive right into that new hardcover. Once you know what it’s like in that zone, you’re a part of the bar-book club for life, secure in the satisfaction that nothing else could be this natural and pure. Welcome, friend, and enjoy the best little buzz on tap.