When I began traveling the hardest thing for me to get used to was the fact that I would have to eat alone. For the first several times I found myself requesting a table for one I was extremely self-conscious. What would I do? How would I look? This was well before the advent of cell phones and social media made it possible for us to look busy and save us from our solitude. Soon after, I found myself looking for bars that served food where I could eat and maybe watch the game on the television. After a while I began bringing books with me so as to have something to do when there wasn’t a game on, or when the bar was packed and I would be forced to ask for a single table. It did not take long for me to become accustomed to reading at bars while eating and watching a game. In fact, I began to enjoy it so much that I now look forward to dinning and drinking alone so I have the chance to catch up with new and old friends found in between the pages of a book.
There is a long-running myth that suggests drinking alone can lead to alcoholism. For much of my life I have been a social drinker, enjoying more than my fair share of beers with friends and acquaintances in various settings. When I became a bar tender in the mid 1990s I started to see more and more people come into the bar to have a drink or two by themselves. Some of them would be looking for conversation with me as the bar tender, others would be looking for the hook up, and still others would be there to watch the game or catch up on the latest neighborhood gossip. But the ones that really caught my interest were those who came in after work or late in the day looking for something to take the edge off before going to wherever it was they were going. They would sit there, order their drink of choice, and after a one or two word exchange sink into silence. I always wondered what was going on in their worlds that drove them to want to spend time alone in a bar. That is, until I found myself doing the same thing.
Whether you are traveling alone or just out for a bit of peace at the local bar, books make the perfect drinking companion. Moreover, you are never really drinking alone when you have a book open on the bar in front of you. The conversation may seem one-sided to the other patrons in the bar, but you are engaged in a conversation. Perhaps the best thing about reading a book at the bar is that it lets others know that you do not want to be bothered, that you are not there for small talk and socializing. But then again, reading a book, either in solitude or in a public place, is a kind of socialization, but a very specific type. Not only are you as the reader socializing with the text and the author, you are also sending out information to the wider world. I’ve found that most people are interested in what others are reading. We are naturally curious about the reading habits and tastes of other people. What we read says something about who we are. Our reading sends a message to the other people in the room that we are participating in a different kind of social engagement. Contrary to a first impression, reading in public, especially in bars and restaurants, should not necessarily be considered an anti-social activity. We do not think reading in public on the subway or the bus or the airplane is anti-social, so we should extend the same consideration to those who read in bars. Therefore, there is a contradictory nature to those who read in bars. We are drinking alone and reading, but we are not really alone. We want to remain submerged in the text, but we might not be against exchanging a greeting or short conversation with the person seated next to us. What is most difficult to figure out about those who read in bars is the complexity of temporality. While drinking and sitting at the bar the reader is there, in the present, yet while he or she is engaged in the book he or she is wherever and whenever the pages bring that reader. The reader exists in multiple temporalities simultaneously. Conversations are taking place all around the reader in the bar, just as they are in the text and in the mind of the reader. But these conversations are far from being a Babel-like world. Instead, they constitute a world where the atmosphere is charged with a multitude of conversations and situations, past, present, and future.
I’ve always found that it is harder to read novels or long-form non-fiction in bars because those types of books require long stretches of uninterrupted concentration. Therefore, I bring books that can be read segmentally rather than sequentially. This does not necessarily mean that shorter books are better than longer ones, it means that one can read a book that lends itself to sequential reading in a much more effective way at a bar than a book (like most novels) that demands to be read sequentially. My most frequent drinking companion at the bar is Maurice Blanchot, whose books are perfect examples of those that lend themselves to the segmental type reading practices I am talking about. Blanchot’s writing is often difficult to digest, but he can be read in short segments and most of his work does not demand to be read in its entirety. One can read an essay here, an essay there, a paragraph here and a paragraph there. And although his fiction is much more difficult and demands a more disciplined type of concentration, it can still be read in bars in ways that the texts of others cannot.
There is a wonderful line that appears early on in Blanchot’s The Infinite Conversation. It’s a line that has haunted me since I first came across it as a graduate student in a class taught by Chris Fynsk at Binghamton University. The line goes: “How will we manage to disappear?” How indeed? When most of us are thinking about how we can manage to leave a lasting impact on the world and those around us, it is provocative to think about how we instead manage to disappear. In a very resonant way we are doing just that when reading in a bar. The reader is both present and not present, both alone and not alone. There is something celebratory about reading a book while drinking at a bar. While thus engaged we are opening the conversation in ways that would be impossible at home with a drink, or in a classroom full of eager, if pretentious, graduate students. I wonder just how many educations, real educations, began at a bar while the reader nursed a drink and opened a book?