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NPR Arts & Life

Reading On The Roof? Now That's Punk Rock

Don't try this at home: Critic Juan Vidal experiments with reading on the roof.
Don't try this at home: Critic Juan Vidal experiments with reading on the roof.

In The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño invents the "visceral realists," a group of poetry-mad troublemakers who read and write incessantly. They also shoplift, sleep around, and drift from place to place — causing mayhem at workshops and picking fights with lesser poets for sport. All of them are guided by a lust for life and an unwavering devotion to literature and its discontents. One even reads in the shower, easily the most punk-rock thing this side of the Sex Pistols.

A good book, much like the last slice, can be hard to put down. It calls, and you answer. You fight off distractions in order to keep your nose buried in its binding. If you've been there, you understand: Fantasy trumps the reality of the moment and you become lost, lulled and taken captive by the turning of each page.

When it comes to where people read, sure, we know the usual spots. There's the train, the doctor's office, the airport; and one of my favorites, the bar. Petra Mayer, my editor here at NPR Books, says, "I read at stoplights if a book is really good." Then there are the more odd times and places to crack one open — and it can get dangerous for the ill-prepared.

"A good book, much like the last slice, can be hard to put down. It calls, and you answer."

If you live in a big city, chances are you've seen people walk-reading, er, read-walking. Since so many of us are constantly absorbed in our phones — texting, checking the news and social media — devouring a novel while making a trek to lunch or to a meeting doesn't seem all that strange. So long as your skill for avoiding walls and pedestrians is up to par, you probably won't have an issue; I've watched people at busy intersections steer completely clear of traffic and passersby without the least bit of hesitation. You could argue that people are putting others, and themselves, in harm's way by read-walking. For some, though, books can feel like landscapes in their own right, rousing narratives serving as the rhythm beneath our two feet.

Novelist Daniel Alarcón, a father of two, tells me about a park bench near his house that overlooks what remains of the port of San Francisco. "I take my 9-year-old there to play soccer or ride a bike, and I look at that bench with longing, knowing I'll never have time to take a thermos of coffee and a novel, and sit quietly and read." Still, he makes it work, getting his reading in when he can. "At home, while my 2-year-old rolls Matchbox cars down those little plastic ramps that have taken over our living room, I read. Sometimes I'll play with him, sneak a quick peak now and then at a novel I'm reading, and notice later that I managed a half a page in an hour."

A Cup of Water Under My Bed author Daisy Hernandez recalls reading the poetry of Dulce María Loynaz on the Malecón in Cuba. "I was there in 2000, seeing the place for the first time," she says. "These days, I like to read at the Looking Glass Cafe in the Chapel Hill area while eavesdropping on grad students. But today, it's in row 4 of a US Airways flight, window seat D."

Fascinated as I am by the different ways that people choose to consume literature, I figure why not experiment with some I've never tried. A quick search on Goodreads leads me to a fascinating poll where readers share the many places they've brought books. There's "Reading while riding a bike," "Reading during bad metal bands," and "Reading while hanging upside down from a tree limb." You name it, it's probably there. My turn:

First up, the shower:

Basically, I botched this. I'm not sure how Bolaño's character did it, or why he didn't mind that his book would be dripping bathwater. The act itself isn't easy: You're maneuvering under obvious constraints, scrubbing yourself down with one hand and opening shampoo bottles with your thumb. Most likely I'll never do it again, unless by some stroke of good fortune I'm cast to play Ulises Lima in the film adaptation of The Savage Detectives.

Next, a skateboard:

I grew up skating, so I expected this to be easier. Turns out when you're looking down at a book, you can't see the small pebbles in front of you; the kind that get caught in your trucks and send you flying like a bat out of hell.

Lastly, on the roof:

This was enjoyable, mostly because I've always wanted to be tall as house. How about you? Where's the weirdest place you've taken a book?

Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He's on Twitter: @itsjuanlove.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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