Over the holiday weekend we kept an almost constant fire burning in the fireplace. At times, while the kids and their cousins played together downstairs, the grownups sat on the couch facing the fire, and chatted, dozed, and occasionally read our books, the pages softly turning in the gleam of the fire. It seems like a perfect place to read, and I have spent many and enjoyable hour on that couch reading. But it is not currently among my favorite places to read. As it turns out, all of my favorite places to read are in hindsight.
There is a carrel in the Granada Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library that I loved to read in when I was twelve or thirteen. During the oppressively hot summer days in the San Fernando Valley, I’d walk the mile from our house to the library, doing my best to stay on the shady side of the street. Stepping into the library was like stepping into an oasis in the desert. The doors would open with a whoosh, and you could feel the cold air pour from the building. After spending a considerable time perusing the shelves gathering books, I’d take my harvest to one of the carrels that patrons used for reading. There, the carrel, the library, everything, would disappear while I read.
Years, later, after I’d graduated from college and started at my job, I would drive from the Valley out to Pacific Palisades, park the car alongside a park that overlooked the Pacific Ocean and sit on a bench to read. There, with an ocean breeze blowing and a quiet surrounding, I read several books, including William Gibson’s Idoru and Damon Knight’s Humpty Dumpty: An Oval.
For many years, on an early April Saturday, I’d head over to the local Swenson’s in Studio City, sidle into a booth, order a chocolate milk shake, and crack open In Memory Yet Green, the first volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography. There, with my shake in a glass and a refill off the side, I would sit for an hour or more reading the first few chapters of that book, oblivious to most of what was going on around me. To this day, however, the smell of an ice cream shop pulls me back to Swenson’s.
Returning from a vacation in Hawaii in 2005, I arrived at the Lihue airport around 6 pm for a 10:30 pm flight back to Washington, D.C. via Los Angeles. The United counter didn’t open until 6:30 pm and once I was checked into my flight, I found my way to an outdoor patio. I’d picked up a mai-tai along the way, and sat on a bench with the mai-tai and a copy of Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda. With the trade winds blowing around me, I read, and sipped, and read, and sipped, and sniffed the air. I began to wish that my flight would be delayed until morning. I could sit there reading and sipping and sniffing all night.
My cousin belonged to a fishing club in Vermont and would take me there from time to time. The club was deep in the Vermont wilderness. There was no electricity at the clubhouse, but there was a generator. My cousin taught me to fly fish there. I would take a rowboat out into the lake, fish for a little while, and then, find a shady spot along the short and read. After a while, I’d return, and we’d clean and grill our catch. When it rained, there was a screened in porch and I would sit on that porch with the sound of the rain tuning everything else out reading.
In Castine, Maine, I visited some family. At night, in my room, I noticed how dark and silent it was. I sat up in bed with a light on, reading John Adams by David McCullough for a good part of the night. The silence and darkness gave me some hint of what it might have been like for Adams in Braintree, reading by candlelight, warmed by a stove. What places those books must have taken him!
But my favorite place to read was on the porch of an apartment I rented for several years in Studio City on Tujunga Avenue between Ventura Boulevard and Dilling St., just around the corner from the Brady Bunch House. It was a first floor, corner apartment and had a wraparound porch. I spend hundreds of hours sitting on that porch with my chair propped back, my feet on the railing, and a book in my lap. I must have read a hundred books on that porch in the years that I lived there. In my memory, the weather was always perfect, the scene always serene, even when the street was blocked off while filming a scene from Magnolia1 there. Of all the places I’ve read, that porch is my favorite.
It may be that in ten or twenty years from now, the places I read today will be among my favorites. I enjoy sitting out on our large deck with a book. I like sitting on the couch in front of the fire. There is a chair in my office surrounded on three sides by my books where I like to read. But for me, a favorite reading place becomes so only in hindsight.
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- At the time, the guy in the craft services truck told me that it was “a William H. Macy movie called The Rose.” ↩