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I recently read Casper ter Kuiles The Power of Ritual, a book on how to create everyday rituals, especially in the context of secular spirituality. It made me think about the rituals that exist in my life and I soon realized that book rituals are an important part of my mental and emotional wellbeing. Of course, I enjoy reading it. But book rituals keep me down. As I began to seek them out and then purposefully cultivate them, I realized the important role they play in my life.
These little literal things that I do every day, every week or every month are individually not profound. It’s just habits that have become meaningful with time and attention. Taken together, they keep me centered. They remind me to slow down and be careful. They give me strength to face the chaos of the world.
Morning Tea & Poetry (daily)
Last month, I took part in the Sealey Challenge, a challenge created by poet Nicole Sealey to encourage poets and poetry lovers to read more poetry. In August, participants read a book of poetry or a folk song every day. I was inspired by my Rioter colleague Connie Pan (who wrote wonderfully about last year’s challenge) to take on the challenge and immediately requested a huge pile of poetry from my library.
I discovered so many amazing poets, fell in love with several new collections, and generally loved immersing myself in poetry for a month. It was invigorating and exciting, and reminded me of the best of a reader and a member of a literal community. But by far the best thing that has happened to me thanks to the Sealey Challenge is my new morning poetry and tea ritual.
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This is how it works: Every weekday morning, before breakfast, before I go for a walk with my dog, and especially before I check my cell phone or check the news, I sit down to have tea and read poetry. It started when I knew that if I wanted to read a book of poetry every day, I had to read something before work. I love the ritual of making tea, which I already do. The combination with poetry just made sense.
Now I can’t imagine starting the morning any other way. It doesn’t matter whether I read an entire collection slowly for over an hour or spend fifteen minutes with my tea and a few poems. It has become the most sacred part of my day, a time free of distractions and pressures, worries and obligations. Even on days when I can’t get my brain to concentrate on books, I always do this: brewing tea, reading poetry, taking a breath.
Saturday morning in bed with bookmarks (weekly)
Earlier this year I discovered Tabatha Leggett’s weekly newsletter, Bookmarked, which records her journey through world literature. Each issue contains a review of a book from a different country, as well as a short list of other titles from that country. Most of the books are in translation, although this is not a requirement. It focuses on contemporary fiction and short stories, occasionally with memoirs or classics.
There are many wonderful literal newsletters out there. What I love about Bookmarked is its simplicity. I know exactly what I’m going to get: a brief overview of a piece of world literature. I always enjoy reading Tabatha’s thoughts, even if the book itself doesn’t pique my interest. And I’ve added quite a few translated books from around the world to my TBR.
In all fairness, the pleasure I have from reading Bookmarked is second only to the pleasure I have from rituals that it has become for me. It comes out on Saturdays, and because Finland is many hours ahead of the US, it’s always in my inbox when I wake up on Saturday morning (even if I wake up at 6am as I sometimes do). I generally hate reading on my phone and try not to watch it first thing in the morning, but I’m making an exception here. On Saturdays, the first thing I read is bookmarks. This ritual takes up maybe 20 minutes of my day, including the time I spend looking up some of the books that Tabatha mentions that fascinate me. But I look forward to it every week. On Saturdays, I wake up feeling excited, expectant, like I’m about to get a little present.
While Bookmarked is beautiful and I recommend it, it’s not the newsletter itself that makes this ritual such a pleasure. It is the permission I give myself to indulge in something bookish and luxurious. It’s a little time aside, a quiet but finite pause before the rest of the world storms in.
Holy reading hours on Sunday mornings (weekly)
A dear friend and I meet every week for a walk. We used to go for a walk in the evening on a weekday, but when our schedules changed we realized that weekends would be better for both of us. He suggested Sunday morning as an opportunity for our regular walk. Reader, I panicked. My reaction to this perfectly reasonable suggestion was something like: NOOOOOOOOOOOOO NOT SUNDAY MORNING.
I didn’t realize how much I valued my Sunday morning reading time until I came across something that could keep me from doing it. And then I fiercely defended these holy Sunday reading hours with all of my being. By that I mean, I gently told my friend that Sunday morning wasn’t going to work for me.
I’ve always loved the spaciousness of reading on a weekend morning. But in the last year it has become a ritual with a form all of its own. Sunday morning is there to prepare a nice breakfast and to read non-stop for a few wonderful hours.
Every now and then something gets in the way of this ritual. I recently moved and spent a couple of weekends painting and unpacking. I felt like I didn’t have time to sit down and read. I felt confused and ill-prepared for the week. Like most book rituals that I cherish, the part that I actually read is only a small part of what makes it so important. I use books to make room in my life that is only mine, that feels sacred, and that makes me a happier, friendlier person, better able to stand up for the people in my life.
The monthly reading spreadsheet dump (monthly)
Like many book nerds, I keep a reading table. I update it every time I start or finish a book. But when I’m finishing a book or entering what has just started, I rarely enter all of the information. I leave most of the fields blank and usually just write down the title, author, and date. I don’t like spending a lot of time there every day checking boxes. Instead, I do a massive data dump at the end of each month. I took a lot of time for that. I make myself a cup of tea and sit down at the kitchen table. Then I go through all of the books I’ve read that month and write down their genres, page numbers, formats, etc., etc.
Would it be quicker and easier to write this book after another? Yes sir. But I love doing it all at once. It’s so satisfying to just put in all of this data and then look at all of my fancy charts. I check in with my reading goals. I set myself new goals for the coming month and list of possible books I could read. I also love to sit down at the end of each month to do my bookkeeping so this can just be me and my table-loving brain. But there is something calming and invigorating about taking 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 of the audiobooks I heard on my Instagram stories. I would then post a screenshot of the audiobook I launch 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 right now. It’s automatic.
I review a lot of books. I love to write about books. But it is often difficult to formulate everything a book means to me in such a way that it is also useful for others. When I write about an audiobook in my stories, I don’t worry about how it sounds or if it makes sense, even though I am obviously writing for an audience. They aren’t even reviews, really. They are unpolished and unedited impressions. Sometimes I write a few sentences. Sometimes I write a lot of paragraphs that are spread over several slides.
In contrast to most of the other book rituals that keep me on the ground for weeks and months, this one is not tied to a specific 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 take a moment to write about every audiobook I read. I doubt anyone’s interested in my thoughts, but it doesn’t matter. I do it because it makes me a happier and better reader.
Curious about other rioters’ book rituals? Tiffani Willis wrote a lovely essay about her reading rituals. You might also want to read Addison Rizer’s article on writing a poem after every book she read in 2020.