Nothing to Read

As an informal poll, I’m curious how many readers here may share the following reaction:

Through unexpected circumstances, you end up somewhere else. You’ve failed to bring any sort of book whatsoever. In fact, you didn’t even bother to bring your backpack. Now you’re faced with the circumstances of traveling back to your original destination where the bag and the book sare. But through some strange alignment of the cosmos, there’s not only nothing to read nearby, but nowhere to buy anything decent. Not even so much as an issue of the New Yorker that you’ve already read.

Of course, you can tough it out. At least that’s what you believe you can do. But reading is such an ingrained part of your life that, with the exception of rampant copulation, you can’t think of a life without it. Whenever there’s a spare moment or the eyes can’t stay shut at 2 AM, the book is there to comfort you, to transport or inform you, and to provide a certain equilibrium that puts existence into a certain perspective.

Without that dependable security, you start to pace. You try desperately to find other things to do. You talk to the strangest people who might be in the same boat. Or something else.

You see, that’s where you folks come in.

What is it that you, dear readers, do when there’s nothing available to read? Do you read street signs? Do you get excited over the directions on a bottle of aspirin? To what degree does the reading experience become somewhat sociopathic, where the eyes must rest upon words and the imagination transported in order to remain of sound and jovial mind?


  1. I usually look around for one of those stands with the free newspapers. Barring that, I can hope for really wordy ads on the subway, like the ones for colleges that have tons of course listings and I can sit around wondering what kind of people are actually take them. And if the ads aren’t wordy enough, I can usually amuse myself wondering what the meetings between the agency and the client that resulted in the ad campaign were like.

    Of course, there’s always people-watching too. But then they get creeped out because they think you’re staring at them.

  2. I’ll sing songs to myself… read anything in the area… or think about what I’ll blog about next time I’m at my computer.

  3. Pull out my Moleskine. (Although, honestly, and quite pathetically, I can’t remember the last time I was without reading material.)

  4. there’s always eavesdropping. though really I usually just start mentally organizing my own stories.

  5. Replay songs in my head, or find words in ads and try to rearrange their letters to see how many new words I can come up with.

  6. It rarely happens that I’m caught with absolutely nothing to read, but when it does I generally look for the nearest bag of Doritos or bottle of shampoo and made do with reading labels. Or I’ll start composing a story in my head, which I promptly forget.

  7. >> Do you get excited over the directions on a bottle of aspirin?

    Mine is a variation on this: I try to determine which letter occurs the greatest number of times on a bottle’s label. I start with A, E, R, S, T, L, and N–the Wheel of Fortune freebies–then keep going. This often keeps me occupied when I’m stuck in a restroom sans reading material. Too much information, I know….

  8. In 1992 I walked across Scotland. For two nights we stayed in an inn and having awoken early one morning and gone for a walk, I returned only to realize I’d left my room without a book. Unwilling to disturb my companion by tossing the room like a madwoman, as I was sure to do at that point, I made do with the inn library. But the offerings, left by previous travelers, were worse than dismal. At last, I contented myself with a beginner’s guide to Italian. “Eek! E un topo en mi zuppa!” I was very glad when the clock turned to a more civilized hour and I got my stinking Middlemarch back.

  9. In the highly unlikely circumstance of being without something to read I rely on suicidal ideation to pass the time.

  10. This is why God invented the PDA. With AvantGo, I’ve always got some piece of the NYT, Guardian Unlimited Books, Salon, The Sporting News, etc. Of course, if I forget to sync it, I may be reading shit from three weeks ago, but it’s better than an aspirin bottle.

  11. Felix and Oscar once ran into the same dilemma on “The Odd Couple” when they weekended at a monastery in search of reflection, inner peace or, who knows, maybe an outlet for Felix’s sexual kinks. Both soon realized that neither of them could fall asleep without reading, so they both resorted to perusing the toothpaste tube.

  12. Here here on the avante go. That saved me many a time (I discovered an interesting NYT article about Clarice Lispector this way).

    Writing letters is a more active way to make your time productive.

    I spend a lot of time making mental lists of books I need to read.

    If you have a cellphone, talking to a friend can sometimes be a substitute for literary intimacy.

    I have an ebookwise 1150 reader and I just bring it with me all the time for precisely such an occasion. It stores about 200 books on it (even old litmags from the 19th century).

    Another duh! answer: make up your own stories in your head. In this age of diminishing time to think about normal things, I appreciate any spare minutes to go over my other literary ideas that are still germinating.

  13. Ever carry a second book in case you finish the first while you are out for the day? Even if you only just started the first and it is quite large?

    Welcome to my neurosis….

  14. My version of MWB’s neurosis — bag contains book I feel I should be reading, often another book I got hooked on when I picked it up mid-first-book, and a magazine or newspaper with an article that caught my eye.

    That said: Ed’s question, I presume, presumes that the electronic solution is mooted – yer stuck sans novel, sans free community newspaper, sans handheld device containing an e-text version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

    The Moleskine answer — though I’ve never owned one — tends to mirror mine: if I can’t have reading material on a 1 AM subway ride back from godknowswhere but have a pen, I will search out scraps of paper to make notes for fiction, letters, todolists, whatnot. The sad truth is that I rarely remember to recycle these into a more lasting form — the notes don’t become outlines for chapters or the jumping off points for hilarious essayistic missives to my pal in Melbourne. But they pass the time, which is their primary purpose.

    Without the pen, I try to actually plot out stuff for a novel in my head. Oddly, this is usually a bit more fruitful, practically speaking, than trying to write in the subway: perhaps because I’m limited to the kind of large-scale ideas that I actually can remember the next morning sitting at the computer. Whereas when I scribble notes I get lost in the details, which seem more than trivial the next time I glance at them.

    All of which to say that I seem unable to just experience the passing of travel time unmediated by the notion of consuming or producing text. Which sounds like a problem, but I haven’t the least idea what to do about it. I think I shall have to work on that inner anthology.

  15. I thought I was the only one. So when I don’t have my 3-5 books, some articles around – nothing to write on either, I assume.

    I’ve been stuck in that very situation. I imagine I’m rereading passages in whatever book I’m currently reading but stuck without. I go over the passage in my head, or just muse over the book in general.

    I started this once when stuck in Luxembourg on a Sunday; one of the most boring places on the planet. I went for a walk – I didn’t carry anything, I was so desperate to get away from my hotel. I was way too far away when I realized that I had forgotten my book and had nothing at all on me. I sat at a cafe (remember, even the people are boring here, so there are no weird human’s to observe) and re-imagined my book. I’ve been doing that ever since.

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