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How To Create an Extraordinary Reading Experience

Elisa Shoenberger


Elisa Shoenberger has been building a library since she was 13. She loves writing about all aspects of books from author interviews, antiquarian books, archives, and everything in between. She also writes regularly for Murder & Mayhem and Library Journal. She's also written articles for Huffington Post, Boston Globe, WIRED, Slate, and many other publications. When she's not writing about reading, she's reading and adventuring to find cool new art. She also plays alto saxophone and occasionally stiltwalks. Find out more on her website or follow her on Twitter @vogontroubadour.

Have you ever had an extraordinary reading experience? It almost feels like all the planets have aligned themselves just for this moment of you, the book, and your environment, whether physical or mental environment. One challenge of this is that sometimes it feels like the result of chance, but we’re going to talk about how to create that extraordinary reading experience.

What is an Extraordinary Reading Experience?

The best way I can define it is that it’s when the book and the experience align so that you don’t just remember the book itself, you remember the incredible experience of reading it.

House of Leaves cover

For instance, the most recent one that I had was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. While I don’t read much horror, I had been fascinated with this book and its unconventional structure ever since I heard about it. During the beginning months of the pandemic, I decided that it was a good time to finally read the book.

At the time, I was also at least six months pregnant with my daughter. Towards the beginning of the book, we were getting ready for bed and the bed frame collapsed on one side, thanks to a faulty bed support. It could be fixed, but not at midnight.

My husband insisted I take the bed and he spent the night on the couch. We decided the dog should stay with me, since we just didn’t trust her wandering around the house at night. But my dog was super attached to my husband and was not pleased to be left away from him.

Since this whole adventure gave me a little bit of a jolt, I decided to keep reading House of Leaves before I fell asleep. Here I was, reading a book about a strange house with newly appearing doors during a particularly strong thunderstorm by myself with an anxious dog. The environment matched the creeping dread in the pages of the book. While a bit terrifying, it was perfect.

The next morning, I told my husband that if a door were to suddenly appear in our house, we were going to leave immediately.

It was a chance experience: the thunderstorm, furniture accident, and the book I happened to be reading. But it was an extraordinary reading experience.

Aligning Book and Environment

While chance does play a role, I do think that you can curate your own reading experience. We make choices of what books to read and where we read them, so you can plan accordingly. The book can match the area that you are in. For instance, if you are traveling to Venice, consider some books set there and find yourself a little cafe by the Grand Canal or any picturesque canal. It may not be a sure thing, but it probably will get you into the groove of an extraordinary experience.

You don’t necessarily have to go far from home either. Maybe you can find a nice outdoor reading spot filled with brightly colored trees, listening to the wind rustling through the branches, with a Mary Oliver book of poetry. Add in hot cider and it might be somebody’s idea of perfection. Ultimately, it’s how you feel in that moment: an extra feeling of aliveness and wonder at what is before you in person and on the page.

But, like many things, one person’s extraordinary reading experience may be another person’s nightmare. I am sure there are people who would have found my House of Leaves experience to be just awful and a good recipe for a bad night’s sleep.

Timing is the Key to Success

That brings us to the second element: timing. When you are reading and your mental state will impact the experience. The key word is extraordinary, not just memorable.

Daytripper cover

Timing can lead to an extraordinary reading experience. It’s reading the book at the exact moment that you needed it, whether or not you know it. For example, when I was turning 30, I happened upon a copy of Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon’s comic Daytripper. It’s about Bras de Olivias Dominguez as he lives his life. Each memorable moment ends in his death, but the next installment, he is alive and well during another moment that again ends in his death.

It’s a beautiful meditation on how we think about our lives, our regrets, moving forward and building a life we want. And yes, it’s about the fragility of life and the importance of living a full life. It was the perfect book for that moment. It made me realize that everyone has regrets about the paths not taken, but we have to use those regrets to build a life we do want. To me, that is an extraordinary reading experience.

For other people, this might be found through reading a book about grief while dealing with the death of a loved one — or something very light-hearted when going through medical treatment. But it’s more than a pleasant reading experience: it’s something that goes deep into your bones and heart. You’ll remember it months, years, maybe even decades later.

I hope this gives you some food for thought and lets you create or recognize your own extraordinary experiences.

For folks who want to get the cozy side of the equation down, here are some essential items for a cozy reading experience. Or check out this guide on how to recapture that joy of reading that many of us had as a child.