The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Where do you read books? I read at the mall.

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The perfect reading environment is hard to come by, which may be why it so often comes with a high price tag. For around $1,500, you can own a leather library chair from Restoration Hardware (“reminiscent of chairs found in the great reading rooms of Europe”). The Levenger Catalog, which specializes in reader-friendly gewgaws, promotes a genteel fantasy of reading constructed around an “ergonomic and ambidextrous” reading table, personalized bookmarks, bespoke pens for note-taking and bespoke notebooks in which to scribble.

Don’t do it. Don’t do any of it. If you want to read properly, go to a shopping mall — but don’t spend a nickel.

Here, among the pretzel purveyors and sports-fan shops (one kiosk at the mall I frequent used to sell team-branded spatulas), parked in one of the islands of chairs and couches tucked near the anchor stores, I’ve found something like the Platonic ideal of a reading environment. Plentiful light, comfortable seating, the assurance that you won’t be bothered by either the pressing demands of home or interrupting humans. (Trust me, nobody will strike up a conversation with you about books at the mall. Even if you sit near the Barnes & Noble.)

Here, I’ve come to realize that we’ve been oversold on “perfect” places to read — a quiet house or back porch, a comfy couch, a reading desk. I’ve been a sucker for it, too, but those options have been failing me of late. I work at home, and the house reminds me of various honey-do projects to be accomplished. The laptop is too close at hand, twitchy to distract. Sitting on the back porch in Phoenix, where I live, is equivalent to reading in a rotisserie oven half the year.

I can’t sleep. And all the books about not sleeping aren’t helping.

Similarly, the out-of-house places where we usually get our reading done are either bad or overrated. Commuter trains? I’ve always found it hard to focus during train delays, a frequent occurrence when I lived in the D.C. area. Public libraries? They always fall short of the monastic silence you imagine they possess, because, for very good reasons, libraries are now community and co-working spaces as much as they are reading nooks. Coffee shops and bars? You shouldn’t have to pay a fee to have a place to read a book.

Parks? See “porch,” above. I’m also inclined to think that people who say they love reading in parks are lying to themselves; there’s always mud, bugs, ever-shifting sunlight and knobby tree trunks to contend with. On this point, I came to my cynicism early. When I was in high school, a girl I was friends with suggested we go to a park where we would read poetry; she was a senior heading to college and wanted a nice moment of closure with another bookish pal. Shade trees, warm sun, open air, fine literature. Plus a couple of angsty, overthinking high-schoolers — “My So-Called Life” by way of that Levenger Catalog. Alas, this was the year of a 17-year cicada brood, so pockets of the suburbs were all but coated in cicada shells. Our sylvan retreat now looked like it had been landscaped by H.R. Giger. Little poetry was read that day.

So, the mall it is.

Here, there’s a steady hum of humanity that feels like clapping on a pair of noise-canceling headphones. Anodyne adult-contemporary pop wafts somewhere in the distance (Adele, Hall & Oates). Families stop at a neighboring couch to gather themselves and to consume pretzel-based snacks, then move on. I’ve never concentrated better, though I recognize this makes me seem a bit ridiculous; my affection for mall reading brings me dangerously close to becoming an Arizona stereotype with a track suit and an AARP discount card, ready to power-walk past the Nordstrom and Macy’s before dumping myself at the Sbarro, gorging myself through a late-capitalist hellscape with a soft-rock soundtrack and calling it living. However, being in the midst of all that at once allows me to recognize it as much as tune it out. Books are about people; reading while you’re around them is a useful reminder of that.

Your mileage may vary when it comes to this, of course. Some malls are noisier than others, and these days, many are so financially unstable that sitting in a failing one might strike the wrong mood. According to one estimate, about one-fourth of U.S. malls will shutter in the next five years. Even at my neighborhood mall, which seems relatively healthy, I can sense the desperation. It hasn’t found a permanent occupant for the Sears that closed last year; five of the 12 food-court stalls are vacant; boutiques swap in and out as if the mall were a lab testing whether one shopping center can sustain a dozen athleisure outlets.

The problems are starting to encroach on my reading space: In recent months, the mall has installed more and more massage chairs that sound an alarm when you sit in them unless you feed it your credit card. Soon enough, I imagine, sitting and reading in a mall will transform into one more consumer act, and the mall will probably be another imperfect reading environment, like all the rest.

If the shopping-mall model collapses entirely, maybe we can move our libraries there. High ceilings, sunlight, plenty of books and people nearby — but not too close. Finally, we’d all be reading properly.

Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”

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