Reading Rituals

Deja Vu Album Cover
I’ve always had moments of déjà-vu while reading, but over the last few months I’ve been having them more frequently. It’s not an unpleasant experience—on the contrary, it brings me closer to the text, makes me feel like we’re on familiar terms. It hits me like a moment of insight, the doubling of the words, the meaning, the experience of reading acting like a catalyst to thrust me further into the text, merging me with it alchemically. It’s a minor thrill.

Well, a couple weeks ago I realized what was happening—at least a working hypothesis. When I first buy a book, one of the things I do is flip through and open to random pages, where I read short excerpts, usually no more than one or two sentences. It’s a procedure that whets my appetite for the work, teases me with it. It’s playful, foreplay, foreshadowing events I can’t yet quite understand. It’s a ritual.

So, I think what’s happening isn’t déjà-vu at all. I think I’ve indeed read the passages before. But thankfully this awareness does little to dull the experience, or counter the deepening I described above. Have any of you had this experience? What are your rituals before or during reading a book?

16 thoughts on “Reading Rituals

  1. Deja Vu = Great album!

    i don’t know that i have any reading rituals. when i was 15 i vowed to read at least a book a week for the rest of my life, and so far have done so, many times reading more than that. not sure that’s much of a ritual, though.

    • Wow, a book a week since age 15? Good show. I’ve actually just decided to do that for the year. I’m a couple months in. I felt like I needed a little kick.

      Another thing I do is, when I encounter a passage I really like, something I want to savor, I turn the book over and stare at the author’s photo for a while. It kind of feels old-fashioned, linking the text so closely with the person who created it.

      • i had an english teacher in high school who was one of the smartest people i’d ever met, and really influenced me. he told me that he did the same thing at 16, so i figured if i started at 15, eventually i’d have one-upped him, haha.

        with story collections, i tend to go back after each story and see what journal it was in. that may be a total writer quirk.

        • I do that too with stories. Actually, it’s in two phases. In phase 1, I look before I begin reading to see which stories from the collection were previously published. Phase 2, I return to remind myself which journal published the story I finished.

          Actually, I find all sorts of reasons to return to both the front matter and the back cover before and during my reading. It’s just part of engaging with the book in a holistic sense–there’s all kinds of “meta data” contained on or within the physical document, and it seems like I’m always wanting it to inform my reading of the text.

          • i do the two phase thing, too. my guess is only writers do that. maybe not though. i bet the “ideal reader” does that, too, because he/she is one of those well informed peeps who reads all the best journals and stuff.

            i think i read the biographical blurb and the synopsis blurb a lot, too, in the midst of the actual reading… i’ve always chalked it up to attention span issues.

  2. I like to read in the bathtub, if I’m reading fiction.

    I like to read in cafes, if it’s philosophy/theory, so I can take notes.

    I like to read in bed, with pillows & a fluffy comforter, all the time.

    I dislike reading in brightly lit places, which probably accounts for my poor vision.

  3. I almost always read with a straight edge of some kind (a bookmark or a notecard or a postcard) and a number two pencil in hand. I like the tip not to be too sharp nor too dull.

    I underline phrases or sentences that I like or that seem to embody a crucial aspect of the work or that connect in some way to my ongoing theory of literature. I usually draw a corresponding horizontal line in the side margin, to make it easy to flip back and find where I’ve underlined.

    On those blank sheets of paper at the back of most books (or, if the book doesn’t have those blank sheets I use the back cover) I list words or phrases I come across in the book that seem new or fresh or interesting to me. But not words that I do not know the definition of.

    When I come across a word I don’t know the definition of, I box the word and draw a little dot in the side margin. This way, after I’ve finished reading I can go back and look up those words and then I usually go to my personal journal and type in the new word and its various definitions. I tell myself this system is helping me learn words, but the funny thing is: I seldom find myself incorporating many of those new words into my own writing.

    If I really like a book, I type up all of the underlined passages into my personal journal, under the heading of: Notes on…

    Boy, typing out all of this ritual stuff makes me sound to myself like a bit of a weirdo. Strike that. A huge weirdo.

    • Ha! It certainly makes you sound like a lover of language, Christopher.

      This reminds me of a guy I knew in college who had developed a code of marginalia that he’d use so that if someone else found or stole one of his books, they wouldn’t be able to “steal his ideas.”

      • That’s awesome: code for marginalia! I’ve recently discovered these strange things called libraries, where they house books you can borrow!?! So I don’t feel right writing marginalia. Now, I take notes. I write by hand. It’s a long process, and reading takes me a lot more time, but all in all, I think I get more out of it than I did with marginalia.

  4. i have some ocd issues when it comes to books. writing in a book makes me nauseous. folding pages does the same. i try my best to read without cracking the spine. the list goes on and on.

  5. Lately, I’ve been trying to “bring” my own current projects (whatever their stage of development, but always larger scale projects: novels, novellas, story cycles) to books I’m reading. When I discover a passage or technique that speaks to the project I’ve “brought,” I’ll flip back to the inside cover/front matter and take brief notes right there. (Because I never read at a desk, these sloppy notes look NUTSO.)

    The older the edition, and the less I paid for it, the more likely I am to do this.

    I’ve also been trying my best to keep up a reading journal, which is the future home of my nutso inside-cover notes. By the time the notes get there, though, they usually diverge from the work I “brought.” I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing. But at least it’s a thing!

    • I think this is smart. Though I don’t go the extra step of taking notes, I too try to consider my own writing when reading. It’s usually more like, what kind of technique might apply, or noting mistakes the author made that I wouldn’t want to make. Occasionally, too, I’ll have moments of inspiration triggered by a book I’m reading–those, of course, like all such moments, are jotted down in my doc entitled “New Book.”

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