An illustration of people reading books in different ways, while perched around a large pile of books

What your favourite reading environment says about you

Do you need perfect silence to enjoy a book, or prefer to be surrounded by people? Do you read best in the bath, in bed, or on the train? Wherever you most like to turn a page, it probably says something about you. 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of a good book must be in want of a place to read it.

Where you read, for many readers, is crucial to the experience of a book. Maybe you're the kind of person who needs perfect silence to sink into a story. Or perhaps nothing gives you focus like the buzz of a busy cafe, or the soapy sensation of bath salts between your toes. Or bed. 

There are many environments in which we bookworms like to read, and it's a question that can tell us something about ourselves. So which are you? Let's see...

The silent reader

'All the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber'

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone... you're off for a read, and someone had better have a deathly serious excuse to interrupt you for the next hour.

In the 1660s, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal speculated that “all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.” You, no. To you, stone-cold silence is a divine state, and noise is the supreme archenemy of serious thinking. If you could turn your reading nook into an anechoic chamber, you would. 

You can't help it; you're a creative type. And quiet solitude fosters creativity. Give your brain a book and a slice of silence, and you can achieve a zen-like state of transcendental calm.

The cafe reader

The gentle hum of chatter, the clinks of cups on saucers and the tip-tap of laptops swirling lazily about your brain... for you there is no reading environment more productive than in the quiet corner of a fairly busy cafe.

You're not unusual. In fact, scientists at Zurich's Swiss Federal Institute of Technology found that background noise plays “a crucial part of human perception, decision making and being able to see from different perspectives.”

It has to be the right noise, of course. The binmen yelling and heaving rubbish into a hydraulic lorry outside the window is good for nobody's sanity. But a cafe, a pub or a park bench in summer? Biblio-bliss.

You're probably an extrovert, and surround sound gives you comfort: you might be taking time out from the world, but it's nice to know it keeps spinning just the same.

The literary commuter

'A book is a portable sanctuary of calm, paper armour against the bustle of life'

You're fast becoming a rare breed; the North Sea cod of book lovers. Where once commuters were among of the largest group of bookworms, your numbers have dwindled in 2020 as lockdowns continue. And please, can everyone stop going on about the new “WFH culture”?

For most people, the commute to work is – was? – to be endured. For you, it's to be enjoyed. To you a book is a portable sanctuary of calm, paper armour against the bustle of life. And your commute is a personal airlock between home and the office where you can leave all earthly annoyances to this world while you escape happily to another. If only for an hour.

The bed reader

Taking a book to bed is one of reading's premier perks. For some, a book is a stimulant. For you it's a sedative. Studies have long shown that reading in bed reduces stress, boosts brainpower and improves creativity.

Not only that, but it's one of the best workouts your eyes can do – stretching and flexing your eye muscles left and right like a form of ocular bedtime yoga, as it shushes you to sleep with the rustle of each page.

But don't just take my word for it, here's what British novelist Howard Jacobson has to say: “Words keep any reader busy any time, but you feel you’ve earned your sleep when you’ve wrestled with the angel of meaning at the end of a long day. No matter how intense the internal struggle, a person reading in bed gives off an aura of achieved calm.”

The bath reader

'Books are merely vessels for the knowledge they contain, to be consumed whole by steam, soapy water and your insatiable thirst for a good story'

For you, reading in the bath is true culture. Choosing to take a bath instead of a shower is a philosophical decision, really – a statement that the world will have to make do without you for an hour or two. Who needs the world, anyway, when you can be with a book, soaking silently in a candle-lit cocoon of lavender-scented heaven?

As for books themselves, they are not to be worshipped or kept in pristine nick, unless you're taking Shakespeare's First Folio or the Coverdale Bible into the bath (in which case someone should really report you to the British Library, or the police).

No, to you books are merely vessels for the knowledge they contain, to be consumed whole by steam, soapy water and your insatiable thirst for a good story. And you don't worry about soggy pages... you obviously have a "book towel", don't you?

The holiday reader

The only problem with holidays is that you have to take yourself with you. Our work worries and real-world anxieties don't just evaporate under a gorgeous Mediterranean sun. They have to come too, with the rest of our baggage, dragging their feet through the airport, throwing private tantrums on the plane, imprisoning us inside our minds.

A good book is always an escape from reality, but a good book abroad is a holiday inside a holiday – the best holiday of all. The chance to lose yourself in the shade of lizards and floppy hats. And who needs to learn another language when you can read this one just fine?

You come from a long line of travelling readers, like Abdul Kassem Ismael, the 10th-century Grand Vizier of Persia, who travelled with 400 camels in tow, each in alphabetical order, to carry his library of 117,000 books. If it was good enough for him, it's good enough for you. Read on.

The audiobook hound

'Ignore the purists: you can't cheat on your eyes with your ears'

Ignore the purists: you know perfectly well that you can't cheat on your eyes with your ears. You could even argue that listening to stories is a more natural state than reading – humans have been telling stories orally for far longer than in writing.

Plus, audiobooks ripen the literary experience into a wonderful new reality with narrators, sound effects and music adding rich new layers. That, and the fact they allow you to go places where a physical book would be a health hazard, like driving, deep-fat frying, or jogging along a canal. You're a doer, not a sitter, and audiobooks allow you to live your best active life without compromising your appetite for literature.

The walk-and-reader

Welcome, friends, to the break-neck world of extreme reading. If it could be worked into a competitive sport, a market-leading energy drink would surely put cash behind it.

Perhaps this is less a standalone reading experience than an overhang – you've reached your Tube stop but you simply can't close the book without knowing how the chapter ends. So you carry on, slaloming through crowds of commuters with one eye on the page and the other on the exit sign.

Though this method, really, is best left to the professionals, unless it's a map or an iPhone. Only try this at home.

Image: iStock/Penguin

What did you think of this article? Let us know at for a chance to appear in our reader’s letter page.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more