Pleasure Reading: How People Find Time for Books

In dog terms, Elizabeth leads a life of luxury. Every morning and evening the golden retriever spends a leisurely hour giving the bushes and trees of her Bethesda, Md., neighborhood the sort of indulgent sniffing most dogs only dream of. The sort that most pet owners abort with a swift yank of the leash. But not Elizabeth's owner, who has her own nose happily buried.

"Without a book," says Trustman Senger, "Elizabeth is frustrated and I'm frustrated. If I bring a book, then she can sniff all she wants." And Ms. Senger can get an uninterrupted hour of reading twice a day. "Nobody can call me," she says, "I can't think of the 19 things I need to get done. I don't even have to feel guilty about it." She is, after all, walking the dog.

Ms. Senger's unusual reading habits illustrate the dilemma book lovers face today. Family, work, and community obligations leave them little time to indulge, and what few safe havens they have - from laundromats to airport lounges - are being steadily encroached upon by television.

Developing a reading strategy is often the only way to ever fit in a novel, a biography, or even the latest issue of a favorite magazine.

Avid readers agree that the secret is always to carry reading material, take advantage of the day's natural lulls, and occasionally create artificial ones. Susan Coll, a writer and mother of three, recently finished the second volume of Doris Lessing's autobiography, "Walking in the Shade: The Growing Point."

Her trick? "I always have a book stuffed in my bag," she says. "You never know when the kids will start occupying themselves." Olivia McDonald, whose four children range in age from 2 to 7, squeezes in precious reading time while her youngest naps, in the car-pool line to pick up kids at school and, occasionally, while the children do a puzzle.

This may not seem like much, but these snatches yield impressive bottom lines. "I read on average a book a fortnight," says Mrs. McDonald. "Never less." And she is not talking about slim novellas: McDonald is among the few to have read all 1,349 pages of Vikram Seth's novel "A Suitable Boy."

Set an alarm clock

Most of us typically read 10 to 20 minutes before turning in at night, but this is not always very productive - hence bookmarks that read, "I Fell Asleep Here." Better to tuck in an hour early for a significant stretch of alert reading. Or, conversely, to set the alarm back an hour.

Terry Nickelson, a Washington, D.C.-based filmmaker and writer, often wakes up between 5:45 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. and heads straight for a book. "It is a chance to get my mental tumblers aligned," he says. "I read as long as I can get away with it." Which is to say until his wife joins him, and the day gets under way.

For many this means commuting to work, a daily ritual that savvy readers treasure rather than bemoan. To Wall Street banker Scott Engle, the train ride to and from home "is a private time and space between work and home, and I consciously don't extend work into that space." As a result, he gains 40-minute stretches of undisturbed reading.

Not everyone ferries such a distance, so they lengthen their commute. Caf Renee serves snacks in the capital's bustling Union Station, and its counters are routinely covered with books.

"We have some customers," says manager Tina Aquilino, "who come in early, have an espresso and read something not work-related." The same commitment has people reading during lunch breaks and while a child practices plis or karate kicks - or is busy on the playground, where inventive baby sitters have been spotted working in tandem. The on-duty sitter watches both charges while her teammate sits nearby, reading.

Grab a book, hit the road

Although some people retreat to a back porch or corner of the den to read, most find it more effective to leave their daily environment. Ms. Aquilino has noticed that most of her regular customers are people who work at home. "They want to get out," she says, "and this is a way to see people and read something other than work."

Shutting out the surrounding bustle enhances concentration for many, while those who find it too distracting can head for the overstuffed chairs provided in many large bookstores or take their lead from students and use the local library as a quiet get-away to study. Librarians themselves make time to keep up with their own reading. Sam Clay, director of Fairfax County (Va.) Public Libraries, says "We schedule a portion of each day for staff to be off desk duty. That's a minimum of one hour a day."

But even this may not be enough to get into a Dickens or Michener novel. That is when such burdens as airport layovers or lengthy car repairs become blessings. "Or jury duty," exclaims Isa Cucinotta, who commutes book-in-hand from her home in Brooklyn to her job as program coordinator at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in Manhattan. "I can't tell you how much reading I get done at jury duty. That's when you bring 'War and Peace' and you know you'll get a chance to finish it."

Even car trips present an opportunity to dive deep into a good read - assuming, that is, the car is equipped with a cassette player. Audio books can be invaluable assets to readers who commute by car, work out in a gym, or walk frisky puppies.

In this regard, Senger is fortunate. "The only big problem," she says, "is if Elizabeth sees a cat before I do." The risk is minimal, however, compared to the reward of reading 100 pages a day.

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