The art of reading in bars

Sophie McKay 26 May 2021

There's nothing better than settling into a book while drinking your favourite at a bar, says Sophie McKay

The pleasure of catching up with an old favourite in your local. The thrill of a new discovery leant against the sticky bar top. Or a quick flick with a G&T at the airport, waiting for your gate to be called. I miss reading books in bars. Of course there’s been much to miss this past year or so but there is a certain pleasure to reading alone in a bar that seems hard to replicate.

Books and bars have long gone hand in hand. Writers and drinking are synonymous and their patronage of certain drinking establishments has long been a selling point. I’ve lost count of the number of bars I’ve visited around the world on the basis that Hemingway drank there. Certain books for me are aligned with a solitary pint or whisky, they just work that way.

"I’ve lost count of the number of bars I’ve visited around the world on the basis that Hemingway drank there"

Stylish bar drinks

In Love by Alfred Hayes is one such book. It’s a little atom bomb of a novella that I have read in many, many bars and in fact the narrative—one of loss and minutely examined heartbreak—unrolls as told to a stranger in a bar. Or there are books that have proved wonderful discoveries in particular bars and when I pick them up now they evoke that particular moment.

I discovered the essayist Leslie Jamieson while bar hopping around Catania in Sicily, Negroni on the table, the sunset hanging over the plumes of smoke lingering over Mount Etna beyond. London’s pubs are well suited to taking yourself out for a reading trip, especially in the winter months. The years of history that these venues have, dimly lit with decades of beer stains on the tables. Settled into a corner, the windows thick with condensation, a whiff of cigarette smoke as the door opens, the steam rising up from people’s coats as they come through, it is the perfect past time.

Catania

The Sicilian city of Catania, with Mt.Etna in the background

And I miss the more functional bar reading; in the foyer of a cinema waiting for the doors to open, flicking sweaty pages in the sun by the Thames, killing time. The George Tavern in Shadwell has long been a pre-gig meeting spot for me. And a fine bar for a functional reading whilst waiting. On one particularly notable occasion I was meeting a friend who had been delayed due to a peculiarly heavy snow storm in April. I found myself alone with Jean Rhys and a candlelit pint of Guinness whiling away the hours until he arrived, bursting through the door, backlit and bedraggled by Commercial Road as I carefully marked my place.

"There is something about the focus that comes with reading in a bar that elevates it"

There is something about the focus that comes with reading in a bar that elevates it. Gone are the distractions that the house brings, none of the allure of the blue light of the laptop screen, the constant refreshing of your social media feeds, the ignored household chores. The lubrication of drinking lets us get really lost in a great read, the juxtaposition of sharpening your mind with a book whilst slightly eroding it with alcohol. Reading in a bar or pub reaffirms a commitment to the act. You are focused solely on this action. With the light background clinking of glasses, of people meeting, a gentle hubbub of life, presenting an excellent backdrop to getting lost on the page.

A cocktail

Or perhaps my love of reading in bars is the result of the many years I spent working in bars myself: covertly reading behind tills, shoving battered copies of Graham Greene behind spattered pint glasses should any customer or member of management appear. I’ve never understood the strange idea that propagates in customer service that you cannot appear to be doing anything that gives away the fact that you too are human.

Personally, nothing enamours me more to a bar than when the bartender is reading a book. It hints at what literature and pub culture are all about, finding human connection. And, after all, a great book is much like a great bar; both offer the possibility to escape yourself and the everyday world. Both offer a promise, a sense of recognition, romance or redemption. There is a sense of familiarity in both but they’re also transitory. Bars close down—as many have during the pandemic—and books of course end. But we find new ones instead.

"Nothing enamours me more to a bar than when the bartender is reading a book"

So while it seems this pastime has been temporarily lost I expect it will return, there is a resilience in both aspects. So I look forward to finding a warm, gloomy spot, cracking a spine as I lay the book on the table to claim my spot, breathing in the words and the whisky as I shoulder off my coat. And then, walking through the trails of laughter and snippets of conversation, make my way up to a bar and—leaning on it—ask the bartender (mid-book hiding) that most natural of questions: “What are you reading?”

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