If I wasn’t watching movies, going to concerts, or looking for new restaurants in 2020, what was I doing with my free time? Reading.
It’s not new. In any given year I was reading, my #1 use of free time. But reading has rarely been more of a balm than last year.
Was there ever a better year to escape – or was it an escape – in a book?
Your mileage may vary. Some of my friends read more last year. Some could barely read.
“Does anyone find that they read less than before 2020, even if they have the ‘time’?” my friend Franklin Bruno, from Brooklyn via Upland, asked on Twitter. “I used to finish 3-4 books more a month than now on the subway alone.”
Some responded that they had read half or a third as many books as usual due to an inability to concentrate. Others said they were reading double.
I asked a voracious reader, Janice Rutherfordabout her reading habits in 2020. With few events to attend, the San Bernardino County supervisor expected to hit a startling 160 books read, up from 104 the year before.
“For me, that’s been one of the upsides of this horrible year,” Rutherford told me. “I’m an introvert at heart, so being able to have time for myself without expecting to be somewhere else, with others, doing things has been unusual. I recognize how incredibly lucky I am to have lived containment in this way while so many people are struggling and suffering.”
At Pomona Public LibraryPat Lambert told me that she was one of the readers who had trouble reading.
“Reading isn’t something you do when you’re stressed. It’s what you do when you’re relaxed,” said Lambert, who was home for much of the spring and summer. “When you’re stressed, you do something else.”
In her case, it was watching what she happily called “trash TV,” including “90 Day Fiance.” Ehh, I’ll wait for the book.
I spend a lot of time reading, but I’m not fast. In 2019, I read 46 books. Last year i finished 53.
It included six audiobooks, a format I had never taken seriously. It turns out that having someone read you a story while you drive, clean the house, or eat dinner is relaxing and comforting in a voice through the campfire. Or maybe a voice-while-you-lose-it-during-the-pandemic.
Much of my reading is done in public. I’ve always loved lingering over lunch over a book when the weather permitted, or reading on a Metrolink train or in a coffee shop.
An hour or 90 minutes of reading was always a tonic, and being surrounded by life, conversation, and music gave me a boost.
In mid-March, that all changed. Restaurants were closed to customers for much of the year, cafes too, and the hustle and bustle of traveling through Union Station was becoming more unnerving than energizing.
So I adapted.
On March 16, I had ventured into a Barnes & Noble to pick up “The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019,” just a day or two before the stores closed. Within days, my favorite cafe, Pomona’s Mi Cafecito, was open for takeout only. I would grab a drink and carry it a block away from the main downtown drag, Second Street.
There, a bench would invite itself. Perhaps the one overlooking the pit derisively nicknamed Lake Pomona, or the one across the street from a record store. Or sometimes the wooden slat benches outside the charter school.
A block west are two fountains, one on either side of Second, both designed in the 1960s by artist Millard Sheets. There is a long bench near each, placed between two stone monuments.
One of my indelible memories of 2020 is sitting lengthwise on this bench with my back against a wall, this sci-fi anthology in my hands and a glass by my side. I was bundled up, but I continued to read.
A few weeks later came “A Short History of the World”, a difficult book by my standards that I had bought 20 years ago and put off reading. This, too, was widely read on benches in downtown Pomona, this time in May and June as the weather warmed. Although conversational, the book required intense concentration; if my mind wandered for a paragraph, 50 years of history could have passed.
“Crime and Punishment” and “Death in Venice,” two works of fiction that were a bit above my usual fare, were also memorable for where I read bits of them, which were at Lucky’s Coffee Roasters in downtown Upland after some businesses reopened (before closing).
Just like remembering where you were when you first heard a certain song, the setting of where you read a book can also make an impression. He did in these cases.
Similarly, I have fond memories of taking “Moby-Dick” to the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Claremont in early 2008. It was my first time frequenting a coffee shop, and “Moby” was the most ambitious novel I had read in a few years. Reading a few pages of Melville’s evocative prose a night, a steaming chai tea latte in front of me, remains one of the most enjoyable experiences of my reading life.
But back to 2020, when so many things felt wrong. After finishing the entirety of “Twilight Zone” on Blu-ray last summer, I barely watched anything else the rest of the year, just a few movies. There always seemed to be more urgent things to do, and I was too restless to sit down and watch TV.
Between coronavirus, protests and elections, the year has weighed on me, as it probably has on you. Somehow, however, what never fell by the wayside was reading.
This winter can be dark in many ways, the rain and cooler temperatures can make it hard to read outside, and among other things, I wish for the days when I can sit in a public place, a hot drink close at hand, a book in front of me, music and the buzz of conversation in the air, newcomers walking through the doors adding a moment of interest.
But more than ever, I’m grateful to be able to lose myself in a book, wherever I am.
David Allen writes on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays and reads daily. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 909-483-9339, visit insidesocal.com/davidallen, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook, and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.