When I was a child, I used to enjoy drawing ground plan of my dream house. In it, I included a ballroom, a cinema, a pool and a tennis court. Inspired by the Barbie house, it had a lift as a centerpiece.
Now that my husband and I are renovating our house, finances and practicality dictate a more modest ground plan; an updated kitchen, a new bedroom to accommodate our expanding brood and a bigger laundry. God knows what we’d do with a ballroom, anyway.
But there is one luxury that I would love to include in the plans for our house – a reading room or nook. My dream reading room would consist of a comfortable chair, strewn with plush cushions, surrounded by shelves of books. Ideally, there would be dappled light and white, diaphanous curtains – not dissimilar to those that billow in the scene where the reader first encounters Daisy in The Great Gatsby. The window would look out onto an abundant garden, crowded with a mess of greenery.
A vintage lamp would cast a golden light on the pages. There would also be a small coffee table next to the chair, perfect for holding a cup of tea or a glass of shiraz.
My slippers would be tucked under the chair and a blanket would lie across its arm for when the chill creeps in, which it is certain to do during Ballarat’s long winter. And would it be going too far to wish for a small fireplace?
Then there are the things that wouldn’t be a part of the room. There would be no television and, unlike throughout the rest of the house, there would be no toys. No Lego, no dress ups and absolutely no craft.
I am not the first person to dream of a spot designated specifically for reading. A quick browse of Pinterest reveals hundreds of interpretations of the perfect reading nook. Some are light-filled, decorated with pot plants and modern furniture. Others are dark and atmospheric, crowded with books, cushions, candles and rugs. They are tucked in corners or spread across lofts; windowless cocoons or with gorgeous views of snow, sand or sumptuous gardens. It is clear that much thought and attention has gone into creating each of the spaces.
Some of the most impressive and beautiful reading spaces can be found not in houses or gardens, but in books stores and libraries.
My friend and a fellow book-lover in the US sent me this picture of the view out the back window of Darvill’s Bookstore on Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands. It would be hard to beat sipping a cup of tea with a book and that view in the background.
If grandeur is what you want from your reading experience, the Libreria El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires is a converted 1920s movie palace where theatre boxes are used for reading rooms.
Poplar Kid’s Republic in Beijing features space-age reading nooks perfect for kids or playful adults.
Libraries can have a similarly welcoming quality, and an environment that, rich with the smell of books, invites the visitor to stay. One of my favourite writers, Helen Garner, fondly recollects the experience of entering a library on a warm day.
“To slide into the domed reading room at ten each morning, specially in summer, off the hot street outside, was a sensation as delicious as dropping into the water off the concrete edge of the Fitzroy Baths.”
I agree that there is something comforting and uplifting about being in a room full of books, designed for the enjoyment of reading those books. Mark Twain wrote about his enjoyment of being surrounded by books:
“In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.”
But, for other book-lovers, little thought, planning or embellishment is required to create the perfect reading space. As Dutch author Thomas a Kempis identified centuries ago, all that is needed is something to read and somewhere to sit.
“Everywhere I have sought rest and not found it, except sitting in a corner by myself with a little book.”
For Theodore Roosevelt, it was a simple matter of the right weather and a few simple comforts to create the ideal reading spot.
“There are rainy days in autumn and stormy days in winter when the rocking chair in front of the fire simply demands an accompanying book.”
And in my heart of hearts, I have to agree. While I love the idea of my dream reading space, paradoxically, it is when I pick up a book that I am furthest removed from the room in which I am sitting. I am not thinking about its comfortable chairs or noticing the lovely breeze, but moving through the streets of post partition India, hanging out with the filthy rich in Singapore or watching the drama unfold at court in Tudor England – wherever the book might be set.
As Haruki Murakami described when he starts reading:
“Slowly, like a movie fadeout, the real world evaporates. I’m alone, inside the world of the story. My favourite feeling in the world.”
Somerset Maugham agreed that it was the experience of reading itself, rather than the location, that provided a safe, joyful place for the reader.
“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.”
So, perhaps I should no longer dream of the perfect reading room that is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby or the pages of Vogue. Instead, I will dream of the great books I will read, perhaps accompanied by a cup of tea, wherever I recline. For, wherever I might be, the book I am reading will provide me with the perfect setting.