Let me begin by quoting Benjamin Franklin, who felt the need to apologize for suggesting that cleaning the filthy streets of his beloved Philadelphia was a worthwhile endeavour:
Some may think these trifling Matters not worth minding or relating. But when they consider, that tho’ Dust blown into the Eyes of a single Person, or into a single Shop on a windy Day, is but of small Importance, yet the great Number of the Instances in a populous City, and its frequent Repetitions give it Weight & Consequence; perhaps they will not censure very severely those who bestow some of Attention to Affairs of this seemingly low Nature. Human Felicity is produc’d not so much by great Pieces of good Fortune that seldom happen, as by little Advantages that occur every day.
It’s easy, of course, to be on Franklin’s side when there’s so much historical distance between us and his call for clean streets, something we take for granted now. But the fact is that the idea was at one time considered controversial, even ridiculous.
It’s in this context that I’d like to address a dust-blown-into-the-eyes inconvenience that is a routine fixture of contemporary life: reading handheld books.
The inconvenience and distraction of having to hold a book becomes apparent as soon as you start reading for research purposes. If you want to type out a quotation and note the reference, the first thing you have to do is put the book down, probably on a desk or a table. Then you have to find some way to keep it open, perhaps by placing an object on top of it or wedging it under something. Finally, you have to look down at the surface where the book is spread out, and then look up at your screen as you type.
And when you’re done noting the quotation, and perhaps writing some observations about it, you have to pick the book up again — only to put it down and go through the whole process again a moment later, when you find another great passage worth noting.
That’s just one reason why awesome reading instruments like bookchairs exist. Here’s an example of one in action, to the left on my desk:
Now, you’re not always going to be working from your home or your office where you can use your handy bookchair. Some books are just too big for a bookchair to hold, and if you haven’t cracked the binding they might just refuse to stay open when you put them down in order to use your hands to take notes, or stir a coffee, or whatever it is you’re doing.
In that case, expert readers have a solution: a section of weighted book rope.
If you’re wondering where to get weighted book rope, unfortunately I can’t be much help since I nicked mine years ago from Duke Humfrey’s Library when I was doing some research on medieval alchemy and other things for my doctoral thesis.
Duke Humfrey’s is a good example of a place where hands-free reading is ideal. That’s not only because many of the books held in the library are so big, but also because they are so old. Touching and handling books actually contributes to their deterioration, and touching them as little as possible helps them to last longer. That’s why they have special pads to place books on, as you can see in the picture below.
Serious research reading practices aside, the absolute last place where I would want to have to hold a book is when I’m lying down reading in bed. Fortunately there are gooseneck mounts you can get that make reading in bed really easy.
Here’s a closeup:
Setting the objective advantages of reading hands-free for research and book-preservation purposes aside, I’d like to make an argument for the aesthetic or sensory advantages of reading hands-free.
When you’re holding a book, there is a constant tension in your muscles that produces a permanent background distraction. You find yourself perhaps changing the position of your hands, shifting the weight of the book from one hand to another. If you’re reading two-handed, you can’t even take a sip of coffee without doing some kind of dance with your hands that is the intellectual equivalent of changing the subject.
Have you ever noticed how, when someone is really concentrating on learning something new that is being explained to them, they tilt their head forward and their mouth hangs open slightly? That’s partly because they’re relaxing in order to focus all their effort and attention on one thing. It’s the intellectual equivalent of the reason champion sprinters also let their mouths hang open: all their energy is being focused on a single task, and any unnecessary tension, however minor, disrupts the whole process.
If you’re really into reading, I would strongly recommend switching to a hands-free process using some of the tools mentioned above, or just figuring out whatever works for you. It’s relaxing and liberating and, if it makes you feel better, an ancient practice.
[Update: Here’s another quote like the one by Franklin, from a Paris prefect of the Seine in 1823, h/t Henry Grabar:
“Busy people, no longer having to focus their attention on which stones to walk on as they pick their way through the street, will devote all the more thought to their own interest, their work, and will enlarge their ideas accordingly.”