Despicable cottages

Laura Miller

Laura Miller
New York, New York, USA
Senior Writer
I work for Salon, mostly writing about books, and occasionally about TV and film. I edited The Salon Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors and am the author of the new book, "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."


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SEPTEMBER 27, 2009 2:33PM

The comfortable reader

Rate: 4 Flag

Every so often, I'm invited to speak to students about my work and someone asks what's the hardest part of my job. I'm not sure what answer they expect, but they always seem surprised when I say that it can be physically difficult.

Except for a bout with repetitive stress injury a few years back (brought on by bicycling in San Francisco), it's not the writing, but the reading that gets to me. A lot of sitting is never good for your body (I get a surprising amount of reading done on stairmasters and elliptical trainers, by the way), and holding up heavy books at eye level for hours on end is harder on your back and shoulders than most people realize. So is fixing your neck at one angle. Our bodies were meant to move around, and mine tends to complain when I don't.

In my quest for tendonitis-free reading, I've exchanged many emails with the writer Laura Moser, who suffers from chronic shoulder pain that interferes with her work. (Laura wrote this story for Slate about traveling to China in search of affordable treatment.) Currently, she's stacking sofa cushions on her lap and putting a table-top book holder on that to lift books to eye level without using her shoulder. I've been there. I own a few book holders of various degrees of usefulness, including the very handy Book Gem, which I take with me whenever I travel. You can use it to prop up and hold open books of almost any size (excellent for transcribing), yet it's small, collapsible and light.

I found my ideal piece of reading technology, however, in the Levo BookHolder stand, which resembles a music stand with wheels and a heavy iron base (to counterbalance big hardcovers). Most important of all, it is easily and fully adjustable in almost every way; I've learned that changing your position frequently is the sine qua non of marathon reading comfort. You can even use this thing to hold an open book face down while you read it flat on your back, which I suppose could come in handy for some invalids, pregnant women on strict bed rest, and the extremely lazy.

I don't do that. Furthermore, I have no plans to purchase a recliner, something a few friends have suggested. While I want to avoid sore muscles, an aching back, a cricked neck and stiff fingers, there's a limit to just how comfy I want to get when I'm reading -- because then I'll just fall asleep.

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I want one!

thumbed for technology guidance
I tried to rate this but it's not letting me. Also, why don't you have "Editor's Pick" on the top?

I liked your essay.
I've been a working book critic for fifteen years and yes, I've been there.

You've got to be in seriously good shape to be a professional book reader. What's worked for me is a regular regime of Zhan Zhuang, a Chinese meditation practice that involves standing in a pose with arms raised in a position called "holding the balloon." It's excrutiating at first, but over the course of a few weeks the brain starts to unblock all the stress and sends all kinds of relaxing chi energy into your shoulders and spine. I've gotten to the point now where I could stand like that easily for forty minutes. So book holding is not as much of a challenge anymore. (My posts on Zhang Zhuang are archived in the left hand margin of my blog if you, or anyone else, is interested in reading more.)

I also often read and write sitting on a exercise ball at a table. It lengthens my spine and relaxes my lower back and shoulders. I learned this trick from my son's occupational therapist. You might want to consider consulting one. They have all kinds of amazing tricks for positioning your body to handle any kind of repetitive stress.

And consider buying a bunch of different e-readers. Not the Kindle, from everything I've heard it kind of sucks. But the ipod touch and the new Sony touch are pretty fun to read on.

God knows book critics don't get enough new toys, so you should take advantage of your right to declare them as business expenses. Also the digital ARCS don't clutter up your house and office as much. And you don't have to lift endless boxes of them to donate to the library.