A Dream Reader’s Retreat

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

I regularly see information floating around social media and the wider internet about writer retreats. They’re opportunities for budding and established authors to spend a few days or few weeks in some place that’s not their home. These spaces offer them a place to be inspired, to check out of their everyday lives and check into a place where they have time to dive into their works in progress. In some cases, these writer’s retreats involve workshops; in others, they’re merely a quiet alone space with meals provided.

One of the best stress-reducing experiences I had was in college. A friend and I checked into a monastery for a weekend. We had separate rooms and the opportunity to dine in the cafeteria three times a day with, no exaggeration, the world’s best cookies. During that weekend, I did nothing but read. I read two Bill Bryson books (this was in Iowa, so of course I had to read his work) and a couple of classic titles between trips for food and liturgy.

It struck me in reflecting on that weekend that nothing like a writer’s retreat exists for readers.

Parnassus Books in Nashville was ahead of me here, as they recently announced a retreat for readers in late April. The retreat, set at a writer’s colony in Tennessee, will offer quiet time and a serene location for readers to spend catching up on their reading stacks. They’ll provide food and wine, as well. It’s a pricey experience, but it got me thinking: what would a dream reader’s retreat look like?

A weekend wouldn’t be long enough for a reading retreat. It should be somewhat longer, but not too long. Four days feels perfect; it’s not too long to spend just reading, but it’s long enough to pick up a hefty tome and either finish it or make a significant dent. Assuming eight hours for sleep, as well as four to five hours on non-reading activities through the day, that’s ten to eleven hours each day to read. Over the course of four days, that’s 40+ hours, or the equivalent of a standard work week.

My dream retreat would happen in one of two places: at a quaint space in the bustling heart of a major city — where there would be bookstores, libraries, and plenty of coffee shops, parks, and other spaces to settle into for a day of reading — or somewhere deeply rural, in an old, ivy-covered brick bed-and-breakfast type space, with virtually no other people around.

Perhaps what I’m really looking for somewhere like the Apostle Islands, which is remote, but not entirely shut off from places to read were I tired of reading in my bed or a comfortable indoor space. Being able to tote one of my books to the lakeshore but feeling no obligation to don beachwear or ward off the beach crowd and instead take in the story with beautiful, natural surroundings sounds idyllic.

The lodging itself would be small, cozy, and private. There’d be separate rooms for anyone else attending the retreat, and though there would likely be one kitchen/cafeteria, there would be options for dining. While I would be perfect content to spend four days alone with my reading, sometimes, the option to sit down and talk about what you’ve been reading is extremely appealing. Meal times would be perfect for those discussions — no need to make it more organized than that.

For those hunger pangs that strike mid-sentence, there would be spaces to take in those meals alone, allowing for quiet reading without feeling pressure to make conversation with anyone else. Private reading-and-eating spaces throughout the shared space would be perfect. There would be unlimited access to tea, coffee, and perhaps some of those delicious monk cookies. Maybe at night there would be an option for an attendee bonfire outside, where we’d make s’mores and chat all things books and reading.

A nice thing about a reader’s retreat is that even in a shared space among strangers, there is always something easy and interesting to talk about with one another.

Of course, the dream reader’s retreat lodging would have its own library, flush with books left — purposefully or accidentally — by previous guests. There would be recommendations on those shelves, too, inviting readers to pick up a new title and spend time with it. The library would come complete with plush, comfortable furniture, too, some hidden in nooks and corners, some, perhaps, in the center of the room for those who would like to talk books surrounded by them.

The toughest part of this reading retreat would be choosing which books to bring along. With four days, there’s a lot of pressure. But knowing, too, that that’s 40+ hours of reading time, that opens up a lot of opportunities to explore new, different types of reading that don’t make their way into the regular reading routine. The key is having variety.

First, I’d pack a collection or two of short stories. These are the sorts of books I don’t pick up as often as I should, and they make for perfect reads between full-length books.

I’d pack two or three adult non-fiction titles, most likely “micro histories” of sorts. I’d likely make one of those a reread title, since non-fiction rereads are rare for me. Maybe it’d even be a Bill Bryson title. They are, for me, a sort of comfort reading, as they take me right back to a good place.

Since YA fiction is the bread-and-butter of my reading diet, I’d pack a few titles. But I’d likely not pack new books. Instead, I’d use this blessing of time to catch up on back list titles by favorite authors, as well as back list titles that I’ve had on my to-be-read list for years. I’d also likely pack one or two of those YA books that are outside my usual taste.

I’d pack a recent adult novel or two, as well as one of those classics I’ve kept meaning to read but haven’t. Maybe something by Virginia Woolf (sorry to the college professor I had who assigned me her work no fewer than four times and that I fake-read no fewer than four times).

I’d definitely pack a Shirley Jackson novel, too, seeing that those nights in a quiet room would set a perfect mood for her work.

One thing I would not pack on this retreat: my ereader. I’m not against ebooks; however, there’s something exciting about being limited in your reading choices. It forces you to pick up those things and use your time to think about those choices. Perhaps this is an opportunity to discover a love for a new genre or reengage with a flavor of writing that’s been forgotten. As importantly, this is a slate of time and solitude that forces you to confront those things that you think you like but maybe don’t. With the freedom to read uninhibited, with the solitude and quiet space to let your mind do some hard thinking, it would be impossible not to confront those reading preferences head on.

As soon as some sort of retreat like this opens up — and when it’s affordable (it really can’t be that expensive, seeing the cost is in lodging and food) — I’m all in. In the mean time, I’ll be here, curating the perfect stack of books to bring along for the ride.

What about you? What would your dream reader retreat look like?


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