How to Read Through a Season of Family Gatherings

I never understood why people say that the holidays are stressful. This is largely because I’ve been on an academic calendar for most of my life and so the holidays have always been a month-long lounge-fest full of delicious snacks and massive sweaters and binge-watching musicals. However, now that I live a gazillion miles away from everyone I love and work a full-time job, my holidays are mostly consumed by an epic trek through multiple cities in multiple time zones that requires multiple passports, massive amounts of luggage, diapers, Dramamine, coffee, a carseat, and books of both the picture and regular variety.

Why books? Because everyone has their coping mechanism for the holidays and mine is fiction. From the first flight to the last “Fa la la,” reading is what gets me through. Books prop me up against the holiday’s continual onslaught of bright colors and loud music and kids running everywhere and chit-chat and jet-lag and celebration and hangovers. Because no matter what is going on around you, if you have a good book in hand, it’s not going too much.

The problem is that reading gets a bit of a bad reputation. Books are associated with solitude, which makes sense. And solitude is not really a state we’re meant to enjoy when surrounded by family, which also makes sense. But I like to think that books, instead of being an antisocial cocoon, are actually a support structure that keeps you going during times of intense social involvement. (See: Bibliotherapy)

I love hanging out with family over the holidays. So I don’t bury my nose in a novel because I dislike gatherings, but because I’m running on limited social steam this time of year. It is cold and dark and my ability to talk to other humans was pretty much tapped out at the office holiday party. (And this practice is not limited to family gatherings specifically. I once spent a particularly wonderful New Years Eve with friends, perched on the edge of a crowded dance floor reading Ogden Nash. True story.)

So if you are blessed with a similar temperament, it can be vital to your headspace to read through the holidays. And as an early gift, I present you with the following guide, based on years of experience, to get the most from your books during family time, while also actually spending time with your family.

1. Read something completely absorbing.

Here is a list of books I have read while surrounded by at least ten people of varying decibel levels: Contact, The Mists of Avalon, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, at least two of Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, Stardust, and a few large chunks of IQ84. My basic strategy with holiday reading is to save up any and all Sci-Fi / Fantasy reading I have been meaning to get around to for the holidays, because those are the books that I can dive into and stay mostly submerged in, even when required to answer questions about what I’m doing after college or why I am going back to grad school or when I plan to finish that PhD or what kind of job I am possibly going to with that all those literature degrees anyway…

2. Look up every once in a while.

Contrary to popular belief, reading a book doesn’t necessarily indicate that you’re bored or that you don’t care what’s going on around you. I care a lot about what’s going on. So I follow along with the conversation, perking up for certain topics (what my nieces and nephew are up to, what TV shows everyone is watching) and then bury myself back in the Discworld and hold out my wine glass for a refill when someone mentions whoever the current president is (this year particularly).

3. One word: E-READER

Having grown up in a family of readers, it is totally normal and not rude at all for one of us to settle into the couch with one of those gigantic, lap-covering hardbacks and zone out. Even in a room full of people. However, through participating in various other people’s holiday traditions, I have learned that holding a large book up in front of your face while you are meant to be making conversation is sometimes considered impolite. (Who, me?) But phones and small mobile devices don’t seem to register the same level of “Back in 15” as a large book. While I try in general not to be that person texting at the dinner table or Wikipedia-ing during a movie, I take full advantage of our collective screen addiction during the holidays.

4. But not at the dinner table

As a general rule, if there food is involved, put down your book. Now is the time for stuffing your face. That’s why they call it Dad’s Famous Corn Bread Stuffing and not Dad’s Famous Crumbs All Over Your Borrowed Copy of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

5. Literary (and other) journals

Magazines don’t give off that “I’m here but not really here” vibe the way a novel does. During the holidays, when you are always on the go, always getting off the couch mid-sentence to go chase after a child or two, always having to chop or refill or light something, always leaving your cozy throw pillows and blanket to run outside for snowball fighting (I celebrate Christmas in Saskatchewan–there is literally nothing to do but alternate between drinking coffee and hurling snow at one another), you need short pieces that you can get through in one or two sittings. Small stories. Poems. Short non-fiction and book reviews. So this is the time of year when I pick up physical copies of publications like Room Magazine or The Fiddlehead (#CanLit). I gather all the back issues of The Atlantic that have been sitting on my coffee table. I get a Lapham’s Quarterly, which my absolute favorite thing to read while busy and traveling.

6. Invite others to join you.

I guarantee that you are not the only one who is squirming in your chair, feeling amazingly awkward, wishing that you could hang with Elena in sunny Italia for an hour or so. Find that cousin/niece/old family friend, and turn the basement sofa into the reading nook. You’re not a loner. You’re bonding through a shared hobby. Got little people to read to? That works too.

7. Find the right reading spot.

You know how there’s always that one armchair in the room? The one that is slightly off on its own, that turns slightly more toward the window or the fireplace or the kitchen than toward the rest of the room? That is now your chair. Own that chair. Drape items of your clothing all over it and claim that spot. It is a lot harder to read in a room full of people if you happen to be sitting between two relatives who haven’t seen each other in ten years and are carrying on a decade’s worth of conversation across you. Your goal is to sit right on the edge, to blend into the scenery. You are a reindeer sweatered reading Jedi.

8. Go to bed early.

No one is going to fault you for being exhausted at, say, 9pm. Especially when you’ve been travelling for infinity squared hours, waiting in ungodly lines and lugging a sleigh’s worth of presents halfway across the world. So don’t stay up to wait for Santa. The kids are in bed (hopefully) and you can be in bed too. No one needs to know that you’re going to spend a couple of hours reading Jane Eyre for the eleventeenth time.

9. Don’t set your expectations too high.

I always, without fail, plan an elaborate holiday TBR list, which you would think makes sense, given the amount of free time that I technically have. But I never get through it. Whether it was prep for the upcoming “Theories of Post-super-duper-literary-movement-struction-al-ism” grad seminar or rereading all the Harry Potter books, it has never worked out. Read what you can and don’t worry about what you can’t. It’s the holidays, you should have little to no obligations whatsoever.

10. And, if all else fails…

…you can hold up this particularly amazing title and claim that you’re searching for holiday recipes.

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