When I was younger, you could easily find me reading at family gatherings. It was my coping mechanism. I love my family, but they can be a bit much. Whether it was with the immediate family of six, my mother’s family of 15, or the greater extended family of 50, there was always that moment when I needed to retreat from their overwhelming nature and take a breather. No one was ever expected to contribute to the conversation the entire time; I doubt anyone would have been able to. However, I noticed as a kid that any time I opted for reading as a break from family interaction, it was usually frowned upon or even mocked.
Reading was seen as an isolating or social avoidance activity. I suppose in some ways it is because reading is the perfect way to escape, figuratively speaking. Yet no one seemed to understand why I did it. Books never talked over me. Books never judged me. Books allowed me to stop and think in my own time. And with books, I always knew that the drama wasn’t real or personal. When the emotional feedback became too much, I could easily read a book and feel the stress melt away. To me, reading was a buffer away from the ever-escalating chaos that permeated our family gatherings.
Today, I love “buffer zones” at social gatherings. Spaces that allow people to break off from the main group and rediscover their groove. Sometimes, it’s a quiet tea table with chairs off to the side. Often, we include a big space for tabletop games and clear the lounge room for party video games. But most of all, I always ensure there is at least one chair (sometimes two, depending on the guest list) for reading. It doesn’t have to be isolated away from everyone else. In fact, having the chair in the lounge room or near the tea table is a good way to let our book brigade know they are still wanted at the family gathering.
How do we achieve this without (or in spite) of the mocking from others? Fortunately, as society becomes more understanding and supportive of neurodiversity, it is becoming easier to use our favourite coping mechanisms, such as reading at family gatherings. They are, after all, one of the most emotionally charged events you will attend throughout the year. Not every family understands the need for breathing space, but I have picked up a few tried and true tips that help shield me from the most exuberant affairs
How to Read at Family Gatherings
- Choose your time
Whether or not you want to be there, you still turned up. And for that, you need to allow at least a small amount of time for interaction. Your best bet is to socialise over the main meal and escape with a book later. The good news is you are less likely to experience spillage on your book away from the table — nobody wants that! Yes, this means No Reading at the Dinner Table.
- You Don’t Have to Hide
More good news: you can read in plain sight. For example: It’s time for the family to sit down and watch sportsball on the television. Grab one of the single-seat chairs nearby and pull out your book. You can still be in the action, but it’s a scenario that requires less of your direct interaction.
- Don’t Dive to Deeply
Travelling to and from family events can be a great time for the full-depth immersion into a fantasy world, but honestly? If you are reading around family, choose a book easy to lift your head out of once in a while (you can find a few suggestions here). Using your book as a shield is okay in small doses. Save the hefty tomes for when you have a bit more privacy.
- Small Chat About Your Book
This one can be a little hit-and-miss with success. If someone points out you are reading, invite them to talk about the book. Start with a quick intro: “Oh, this? Yeah, I read about it on Book Riot, and I’m really into cozy mysteries right now.” Fairly good chance they’ll ask what a cozy mystery is, and you have successfully created a conversation you have control over! Plus, when they lose interest, they are likely to leave you alone to read again.
- It’s a Digital World
Speaking of short bytes of reading (pun intended), it is absolutely okay to grab a small respite reading on your smartphone or tablet. Just remember: No Reading at the Table. Step away from the table and find a nook. Our teenage son loves to read scientific journal articles on his phone. He then throws us random bits of information as small chat. I recently learnt about water cavitation creating pressure bubbles that can cause pain in dolphins at high speeds because of their skin sensitivity. Or something like that (he’ll correct me later). This comes back to the small chat point above, and you don’t have to make it about marine biology. Cozy mysteries are as good and probably less niche.
You may not need a book for every family gathering, but sometimes its simple presence in your bag is enough to give you a sense of calm. For many of us, reading is insulation rather than isolation. We already know reading is great for supporting positive mental health (read more about it here). Don’t be afraid to use reading wherever and whenever you feel the need.