Reading rituals: what’s your strangest book habit?

From page-counting to peeking at the last line, our editors share their private quirks.

Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Ever done something you’ve thought was totally normal only to find it baffles an onlooker? Personally, I maintain that peeling bananas from the base, rather than the stem, is just good sense.

But when it comes to reading, we acquire all sorts of unlikely rituals that, because they are undertaken in silence and often alone, go unmentioned.

Until now, that is, when the Penguin.co.uk team have decided to reveal all about their quirky book habits.

Read in chunks of 50 pages

To get into the world of a book - and stay there - I need to read a good chunk of it each time I pick it up. That means I can’t read a couple of pages and then wander off to make myself a hot chocolate. It means I can’t consume a short chapter and then check my Twitter. If I’m to truly devote myself to a book, to understand what the writer is saying or get to know the characters, then 50-page chunks, or thereabouts, are the way to go.

Fifty isn’t an arbitrary number. If I’m not sure I like a book right at the beginning, I find after 50 pages you can decently gauge if you really dislike it, or if that initial uncertainty was the kind you get when you start a new job (inevitable, but fleeting as you settle in). Fifty pages is also a good way to know how long a book will take me to read: I always check the page count before beginning, and if a book is around, let’s say, 320 pages, I know at 50 pages a day it’ll take me roughly six days to finish.

Most importantly, though, by reading around 50 pages at once I give myself the time to settle into a book. I’m not going to forget what’s happened, or who is speaking, or how I felt when I put the book down. If you’re having trouble getting into a book, trust me: 50 is the magic number. 

By Sarah Shaffi

Forensically research the authors before reading their books

Call me needy, but I like to get to know an author before I read their books. Not in person, just online. Where they're from, what jobs they did, what they think/thought about things – I research that stuff before every book I read. For me, knowing who I'm reading helps me understand what I'm reading. 

Ultimately, the reader-writer relationship is a two-way street, a transaction: I give them my money in return for their ideas. Not terribly romantic, I know. But like John Cheever said: 'I can't write without a reader. It's precisely like a kiss - you can't do it alone.' Well, if I'm going to kiss an author back, I like to know where they've been. 

By Matt Blake 

…or avoid any intel altogether

That handy little synopsis that sits on the back cover, or sometimes inside the front? Not for me. I like to go into a book wholly blind. I may know a bit about the author, of course, but that’s not necessary. Rather, I like to sink into the story without any expectation of what it’s about or the narrative events to come. Often, I find I walk away from a book with a different sense of where its beats and themes lie. No wonder indie bookshops have taken to selling mystery copies wrapped in brown paper.

By Alice Vincent

Fold the (bottom) of the pages

I appreciate that, to many people, this the book equivalent of spray-painting graffiti on the side of a church wall, but not only do I fold the tops of pages to keep my place (bookmarks are for squares, etc) but I fold the bottom corners too, whenever I encounter a passage I want to look up, savour again, or use in a pretentious social media post. The better the book, the more it resembles a doily by the end.

By Sam Parker

Go for total immersion

I have a few reading quirks. I love bookmarks (people should be put in the stocks for folding the edge of the page as a marker - see above) and sometimes manically immerse myself in one author. I’ve done this with Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. I forsake all others to reading their entire output, chronologically from start to finish.

The upside is seeing how a writer develops and what shapes them; the drawback is the lack of variety. Another problem is becoming trapped in someone else’s mind. With Hemingway, it was like echopraxia, imitating his behaviour, down to trying the onion sandwiches he favoured. When I began admiring bull-fighting outfits, though, I knew it was time to stop. Oeuvre and out.

By Martin Chilton

Count down the pages

I read novels a bit like your dad counts down kilometres to the next motorway petrol station. I’ve got my eye on the next chapter break, and I always have a sense of just how many pages are between me and the next stop, like: ‘Just 15 to go; that’s only three sets of five!’

That might sound a bit artless, I guess, as though I’m incapable of ‘getting lost in the prose’, but I derive a great pleasure from feeling that forward motion through a book, like literary breeze through my hair. Is that odd? Try telling me that when I’m just two sets of ten pages from finishing a novel, words whipping against my brain, the end in sight.

By Stephen Carlick

Tackle an epic in tiny portions

John Updike said Moby-Dick represents “the utter blank horror of the universe” – so what better time to read Herman Melville’s whale of a book – 212,758 words – than when I was working six days a week, with two children under three at home? Over a year, I chewed through it, two pages per day. The story of Ishmael and his voyage on the whaleship Pequod is so full of startling metaphors and imagery that I savoured each phrase.

Melville refers to “the vast practical joke” of life, and the final laugh was on me. I was later given a children’s boardbook, which told Moby-Dickin 12 words. “Sailor. Boat. Captain. Leg. Mad. Sail. Find. Whale. Chase. Smash. Sink. Float.” There you go! Takes seven seconds.

By Martin Chilton

Read the last line at the start

Whenever I feel that flush of excitement at realising a book I’ve started is great and I’m definitely in it till the end, I take a sneak peek at the very last line on the very last page – and then try instantly to forget it. I suppose it’s a bit like holding hands for the first time without someone you’re falling for, then immediately picturing the inevitable day they leave and break your heart. I’ve long since given up trying to figure out why.

By Sam Parker

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