Reading, a loner’s sport

I read in bars. It’s spectacularly geeky behavior, but as I often haunt bars alone, white pages peppered with black typography make excellent company. If it’s early and bar seating is available, I’ll even brazenly crack my laptop at a corner stool and read and write. I haven’t spilled a drink on the laptop yet, knock on formica.  


I don’t know many loners (why is everyone so umbilically peoplely?), so my bar-book habit isn’t totally understood. Once, while I was relaxed and swimming in words, a colleague razzed me for reading The New Yorker in a neon-drenched corner of a Texas dive bar. I told him to buzz off and returned to an exceptionally chucklesome Shouts & Murmurs. Not exactly high drama, but the point is: Some just don’t get it. 

And I get that. If I wasn’t such an insatiable reader — I bring reading material everywhere (I even read a book on line at Disneyland) — I’d regard someone with a book and a beer in a bar as exotic, or sad, possibly pretentious. “Reading a book seems to say: ‘I’m going to be here all evening, drinking this one light beer, so please rescue me from a lifetime of loneliness before I go home to the cats who will someday eat my corpse,’” quips The Daily News.

Funny. But what that misses is what a bold gesture reading alone in public is, and not a piteous one. Bar readers know they appear out of place, irretrievably nerdy, kind of lame. But they also know what they’re doing: enjoying two of their favorite things — words and wine; Tom Wolfe and Tom Collins — in a refuge away from home, where, despite the hermetic aspect of the reading experience, one is still surrounded by the healthy buzz of other beings. The book (or magazine or newspaper), after all, can easily be put down — unlike phones with most people, who are truly and perversely debilitated by their devices. 

“The person at the bar reading a leather-bound copy of ‘Great Expectations’ isn’t pathetic,” Thrillist avers, helpfully. “They’re mysterious and brooding and potentially full of more intricate webs of life-challenging secrets than a YA section at Barnes & Noble. All this is diminished if you are reading from an iPad. Or anything by Dan Brown.” (Those last two lines are funny because they’re true.)

And yet another critic of sipping a White Russian while nipping some Dostoyevsky on a barstool calls reading in bars a “standoffish, even hostile gesture. It signifies that you have little interest in celebrating or commiserating with your fellow patrons.”

So what and boo-hoo. And anyway, that writer’s observational faculties are comical at best, foolhardy at worst. A “hostile gesture” — reading? Maybe if you’re poring over “Mein Kampf,” “Dianetics,” or “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But a book can be an invitation, a conversation starter (especially if you’re reading any of the above titles). And it beats people-watching or glazing over the Times Square spread of LCD TVs. 

Unless it’s you and your child cuddled in bed, or an author appearance at a bookshop event, reading’s a solitary experience. A book, a beer and I. That’s why I’ve never understood the allure of book clubs (note the smooth segue to our next topic), those small-talk nightmares all about chit-chat and socializing and rarely about the book selected by an unreliable committee.

I already have a long list of books I really want to read without being assigned something I might kind-of sort-of want to read in a circumscribed period of time. In other words: homework.  

“Nearly everyone who’s been in a book club has a bone to pick with them,” writes SFGate. “Big personalities dominate the discussion. You’re expected to read a thousand-page brick in a single month. The books you pick are too literary, or not literary enough. Janice didn’t pitch in for wine and cheese.”

So there is this: As part of a verifiable “introvert revolution” springs the Silent Book Club, an actual book club often called “Introvert Happy Hour.” It started in San Francisco eight years ago with two gal pals reading together in a bar. It now boasts 180 chapters worldwide. 


“The concept is simple yet revolutionary: Members meet up at a bar, a library, a bookstore or any venue that will host them. Once the bell rings, silent reading time commences. After an hour, the bell rings again,” NPR writes. 

“Other than that, there are no rules. Liberated from the orthodoxy of traditional book clubs, participants can bring whatever they’d like to read and chat about anything, before and after the designated reading time.”

Yes, but, it’s still a club, and I’m not partial to organized bodies, be it team sports or religion. So this one, despite its fresh, sensible rules, will have to be a pass. I simply don’t understand why strangers feel the need to congregate and read together. 

People are needy things, squeezed by social pressures and expectations, FOMO (fear of missing out) syndrome, and other insecurities. For me, loneliness isn’t the goal; solitude is. I extract myself from others for a while, book in one hand, beer in the other. Call it eccentric. Call it snooty. I call it peace. I call it bliss. 

8 thoughts on “Reading, a loner’s sport

  1. Ha! Don’t get caught up in the notion that you’re alone in being a bookish barfly. I’ve been known to open a book on a barstool. I had a regular hangout in the little town of Pinole just one exit down Hwy 80.
    The bar was refuge to a crowd of regulars who I would socialize with but there were times when I went knowing that the regulars wouldn’t be there. It was then that I would go to read. The bar runs the length of the room and then right angles into a little corner which is where I would cozy up with a book.
    I wasn’t the only boozing bookworm. Two of the regulars also went in to read. Marques was a high school English teacher who was in the wrong profession and Alan was retired from whatever it was he did before he started hanging out in bars. There was a bartender, Sarah who was originally from Southie in Boston. We shared book ideas. She introduced me to Dennis Lehane. I gifted her a copy of Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow which she liked, but allowed that it was “friggin’ depressing.”
    For the most part people paid me no mind except for the one time a guy at the other end of the bar called out, “Are you some sort of bookworm?” He was a semi-regular who nobody liked. I remember glaring at him and getting up to walk towards while making mention of his illiteracy. He apologized and said he didn’t mean anything by it.
    The only bar I won’t read in is a dive bar (a real dive bar). I sometimes like the ambience of a dive bar but I’m not ballsy enough to open a book in one.
    Nice piece Chris!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad to hear you’re a “book boozer,” too. You always include the best vignettes in your comments, which I savor. Great stuff. Not sure if I read Mishima’s “Spring Snow” but I think I did. Lehane is also great. (His books make great movies.) Cheers! Thanks, Paulie.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read in pubs and restaurants too, but only if I’m meeting someone and they aren’t there yet. I think it’s a bit different for women, and we’re all used to the trick of looking busy if we’re alone so some creep doesn’t try to talk to us. But I have to say that I wouldn’t normally go out somewhere just to read – I’d much rather just stay home and read!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t normally leave the house to read. I don’t remember a single day of my life that I haven’t read: in bed, in the bath, by the fire, in the hottub. I might read on the bus or the plane, but not if I’m traveling with someone.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nicely written Chris. I’m a barstool reader too. Recently i was visiting New Zealand’s booktown Featherston. Had dinner at the local pub. A few drunken groups laughing and carrying on, others playing pool, me in the corner with a bowl of fries, a beer and George R. Stewart’s book Earth Abides. Happy as anything.

    Liked by 1 person

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