Our Reading Lives

An Immersive Experience: How I Read With All My Senses

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Claire Handscombe


Claire Handscombe moved from Europe to DC in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but actually – let’s be honest – because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan, and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives. She also hosts the Brit Lit Podcast, a fortnightly show of news and views from British books and publishing. Blog: the Brit Lit Blog. Twitter: @BookishClaire

For me, and I suspect for many of us, the best reading is the kind of reading that feels truly immersive. You’re not half-thinking about work, you’re not vaguely aware that a child needs your attention, you’re not bothered by some distant construction noise. You’re in the book, completely. And it might seem like a contradiction to say that certain sights and smells around me can help me feel that way. But they don’t distract me: they enhance the experience. I’m not thinking that something feels off or that this isn’t quite the perfect book experience. I’m thinking: ahhh, that’s better. This is what life is meant to feel like.


One of the first things I discovered about the US when I moved to DC was the magic of slightly rough book covers. They’re grainy and interesting to the touch. I don’t know what those kinds of covers are called, and nobody has ever nodded in recognition when I’ve said this, but I’m hoping somebody reading this knows what I mean. Running my hands over those covers in a bookshop or just before I start to read is one of my favourite things to do – maybe because it reminds me of freshly-arrived-in-the-US me, all excited and dreamy for what was to come.

And it’s not just the books themselves: my favourite places to read are all heavy on the touch factor. Back in my old DC apartment, I had a gorgeous sofa in material that felt like (and maybe was?) chenille. I’m not exaggerating when I say that one of the best things about summer was reading on that sofa with freshly shaved legs, or that leaving it behind was one of the saddest things about moving. Bed, of course, also feels luxurious whenever I’m lingering there, and fresh sheets or a big hotel bed help a lot too. And then, for the ultimate sensory experience: my favourite place to read of all – the beach. I’m never happier than with a book in my hand, warm wind on my shoulders, my damp, salty hair cooling me down, and my feet in the warm sand.


And, of course, speaking of the beach: the smell of suncream is intrinsically bound up in some of my most treasured reading experiences. It brings me back to my time in past summers with Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings in San Diego or to Karin Tanabe’s The Price of Inheritance on Cape Cod.


I wish I was better at reading with different kinds of sounds. I want to be one of those cool people in coffee shops, a latte in front of me, whiling the day away as life happens all around. That’s fine for magazines or newspapers, but somehow, for books, especially literary fiction, I need complete silence. I wish that weren’t the case – I’d read so much more if I could just read anywhere – and now that I’m going to be spending a lot of time on the Tube, I’m hoping to train my brain to focus despite distractions.

Although, there is one place where noise doesn’t bother me at all: you’ve guessed it – the beach. The sound of waves is unfailing soothing to me, and the distant noise of people, especially children, enjoying themselves, adds to the contentment.


It’s not unknown for me to pick books based on what they look like. Not just the cover – though of course that’s a big part of it – but what they look like inside. I need blank space on the page (dialogue! Paragraph breaks!); I need a typeface that’s not too small; and if the font is particularly pleasant, that definitely helps me pick up the book in the first place and stay with it longer. (I love it when there’s a note at the end of a book about the font, too.)


I don’t snack as I read, but I do tend to drink tea. That said, that’s nothing particularly noteworthy – true to British stereotypes, I drink tea on a loop all day and evening. Going on holiday alone became a lot more enjoyable once I discovered the joy of sipping white wine and reading, though, which is why, for me, a beach read is a read you can follow and enjoy when you’re slightly tipsy.

At its most basic, all I need for reading is a book, in any format. But all those extras really elevate the experience. For me, the more senses are involved, the more immersive the read, which makes for a memorable book.