The Bookish Rituals That Keep Me Grounded
I recently read Casper ter Kuile’s The Power of Ritual, a book about how to create everyday rituals, especially in the context of secular spirituality. It got me thinking about the rituals that exist in my life, and I soon realized that bookish rituals are a major part of my mental and emotional well-being. Reading, of course, brings me a lot of joy. But bookish rituals keep me grounded. When I started looking for them, and then deliberately cultivating them, it became obvious what an important role they play in my life.
These little bookish things that I do every day, week, or month are not, individually, profound. They’re just habits that, with time and attention, have become meaningful. Taken together, they keep me centered. They remind me to slow down and pay attention. They give me strength to face the chaotic mess that is the world.
Morning Tea & Poetry (Daily)
This past month, I participated in The Sealey Challenge, a challenge started by poet Nicole Sealey designed to encourage poets and poetry lovers to read more poetry. During the month of August, participants read one poetry collection or chapbook each day. I was inspired to do the challenge by my fellow Rioter Connie Pan (who wrote beautifully about last year’s challenge) and immediately requested a massive pile of poetry books from my library.
I discovered so many amazing poets, fell in love with several new collections, and generally loved submersing myself in poetry for the month. It was invigorating and exciting and reminded me of the very best parts of being a reader and a member of a bookish community. But by far the best thing that happened to me, thanks to the Sealey Challenge, is my new morning poetry and tea ritual.
Here’s how it goes: Every weekday morning, before breakfast, before walking my dog, and most especially, before looking at my phone or checking the news, I sit down to have tea and read poetry. It started because I knew that I if I wanted to read a book of poetry every day, I’d have to do some reading before work. I love the ritual of making tea, which is something I already do. Combining it with poetry just made sense.
Now I can’t imagine starting the morning any other way. It doesn’t matter if I read a whole collection slowly over an hour, or spend fifteen minutes with my tea and a few poems. It’s become the most sacred part of my day, a time without distractions and pressures and worries and obligations. Even on days when I can’t get my brain to focus on books, this is something I always do: brew the tea, read a poem, take a breath.
Saturday Morning in Bed With Bookmarked (Weekly)
Earlier this year I discovered Tabatha Leggett’s weekly newsletter, Bookmarked, in which she chronicles her journey through world literature. Each issue includes a review of a book from a different country, as well a short list of other titles from that country. Most of the books are in translation, though it’s not a requirement. She focuses on contemporary fiction and short stories, with the occasional memoir or classic thrown in.
There are a lot of wonderful bookish newsletters out there. What I love about Bookmarked is its simplicity. I know exactly what I’m going to get: a brief review of a piece of world literature. I always enjoy reading Tabatha’s thoughts, even when the book itself doesn’t spark my interest. And I’ve added a whole bunch of translated books from all over the world to my TBR.
Honestly, though, the pleasure I get from actually reading Bookmarked is second to the pleasure I get from ritual it’s become for me. It comes out on Saturdays, and because Finland is many hours ahead of the U.S., when I wake up on Saturday morning (even if I wake up as 6 a.m., as I sometimes do), it’s always in my inbox. I generally don’t like reading on my phone, and I try not to look at it first thing in the morning, but I make an exception for this. On Saturdays, reading Bookmarked is the first thing I do. This ritual takes up maybe 20 minutes of my day, including the time I spend looking up some of the books Tabatha mentions that intrigue me. But it’s something I look forward to every week. I wake up on Saturdays with this excited, anticipatory feeling, like I’m about to receive a little gift.
Though Bookmarked is lovely and I recommend it, it’s not the newsletter itself that makes this ritual such a delight. It’s the permission I give myself to indulge in something bookish and luxurious. It’s a little pocket of time aside, a quiet but finite pause before the rest of the world comes rushing in.
Sunday Morning Sacred Reading Hours (Weekly)
A dear friend and I meet every week for a walk. We used to walk on a weekday evening, but when both our schedules shifted, we realized weekends would be better for both of us. He suggested Sunday mornings as a possibility for our regular walk. Reader, I panicked. My reaction to this perfectly reasonable suggestion was something like: NOOOOOOOOOOOO NOT SUNDAY MORNING.
I didn’t realize how deeply I had come to cherish my Sunday morning reading time until I encountered something that could keep me from it. And then I fiercely defended those sacred Sunday reading hours with my whole being. By which I mean, I gently told my friend Sunday mornings wouldn’t work for me.
I’ve always loved the spaciousness of reading on a weekend morning. But in the past year, it’s become a ritual with a distinct shape. Sunday mornings are for making a nice breakfast and reading uninterrupted for a few glorious hours.
Every now and then, something gets in the way of this ritual. I recently moved, and I spent a few weekends painting and unpacking. I felt like I didn’t have time to sit down and read. It left me feeling off-kilter and ill-prepared for the week. Like most of the bookish rituals I’ve come to cherish, the part where I’m actually reading is only a small part of what makes it so important. I’m using books to make space in my life that’s just mine, that feels sacred, and that makes me a happier, kinder human, better able to show up for the people in my life.
The Monthly Reading Spreadsheet Dump (Monthly)
Like a lot of book nerds, I keep a reading spreadsheet. I update it every time I start or finish a book. But when I go to mark that I’ve finished a book, or enter the one I’ve just started, I rarely enter all the information. I leave most of the fields blank, usually just noting the title, author, and date. I don’t like to spend a lot of time in there every day, ticking off boxes. Instead, at the end of every month, I do one massive data dump. I set aside a solid chunk of time for this. I make myself a cup of tea and settle down at the kitchen table. Then I go back through all the books I’ve read that month, recording their genres, page counts, formats, etc., etc.
Would it be quicker and easier to do this one book at a time? Yes. But I love doing it all at once. It’s so satisfying to enter all that data, and then look at all my fancy charts. I check in with my reading goals. I make new goals for the month ahead, and possibility lists of books I might read. I also love sitting down to do my bookkeeping at the end of each month, so this may just be me and my spreadsheet-loving brain. But there’s something soothing, and invigorating, about setting aside the time to…well, study my reading life.
Lightning Audiobook Reviews on Instagram (Whenever)
At some point during the pandemic I started posting short reviews of all the audiobooks I listened to in my Instagram stories. I’d then post a screenshot of whatever audiobook I was starting next. I stopped doing it regularly for a while, and found that I missed it. So now I’m back at it. It’s a habit I don’t even think about now. It’s automatic.
I review a lot of books. I love writing about books. But it’s often hard to articulate everything a book means to me in a way that will also be useful for others. When I write about an audiobook in my stories, even though I’m obviously writing for an audience, I don’t worry about how it sounds or if it makes sense. They’re not even reviews, really. They’re unpolished and unedited impressions. Sometimes I write a few sentences. Sometimes I write many paragraphs that spill into multiple slides.
Unlike most of the other bookish rituals that keep me grounded through the weeks and months, this one isn’t tied to a particular time. It’s just a record of the books I listen to and how I feel about them. But it slows me down. I don’t review every book I read, but I do take a moment to write something about every audiobook I read. I doubt anyone on the interest is eagerly awaiting my thoughts , but that doesn’t really matter. I do it because it makes me a happier, better reader.
Curious about other Rioter’s bookish rituals? Tiffani Willis wrote a lovely essay about her reading rituals. You might also want to check out Addison Rizer’s piece about writing a poem after every book she read in 2020.