On Curling Up With a Good Book

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

One of my favorite comedies from the 1940s Is The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. This little gem (with an Academy Award-winning screenplay by Sidney Sheldon) stars Cary Grant as the bachelor, Shirley Temple as the bobby-soxer, and Myrna Loy as a judge who happens to be Shirley’s big sister.

The plot is simple. Grant gives a speech at Shirley’s high school, and Shirley becomes infatuated with him. Grant has to fight her off even as her suspicious sister brings the arm of the law down upon him. I’ll bet you can guess who Grant ends up romancing. It’s all great fun, especially a scene where Grant takes on the persona of a teenager for a little bit of payback.

There’s one scene I’ve always found of quaint historical interest. Grant is alone in his apartment. It’s evening, he has on a comfortable robe. He mixes himself a highball and turns the radio to soft music. Then he happily settles into a chair and takes up… a book! He has looked forward to this all day—an uninterrupted hour or two of reading pleasure. Of course, that’s when Shirley interrupts things, having sneaked into his apartment to be near him!

There used to be a time when an evening’s entertainment was sitting in a chair with a drink or a cup of tea and reading a book. The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer came out in 1947, just before the explosion of television. How many people even think of a book as an option for prime time anymore?

These thoughts came to me recently when I was knocked flat by a 24-hour bug. It was a nasty sucker. I spent an entire day in bed doing absolutely nothing but moaning and drifting in and out of sleep. There was a junkyard tire fire in my stomach. My head felt like a mastiff’s chew toy.

The next day I was marginally better, but certainly not ready for Irish folk dancing. I managed to get a little writing done, but then just wanted to go back to bed. Only I didn’t want another day of pitiful do-nothingness. What about reading a book?

I’d recently purchased the massive biography of Cornell Woolrich, First You Dream, Then You Die. I considered it a sign of recuperation that I could lift it. And actually open it and begin to read. Ah! I’d forgotten what a pleasure it is to read a physical book in bed when it isn’t nighttime. (When I try this at night I can manage only three or four pages before the sandman does his thing.)

This time I was into a book for a couple of hours, occasionally closing my eyes and dozing, but waking to read again.

These days I (and, I suspect, most of you) have to snatch time to read a book. Too many other things demand our attention. Speed and the false god Multitask have killed contemplation. We have sacrificed the aesthetic on the altar of the frenetic.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate (and still with awe) the magnificence of the ebook. Having innumerable electronic volumes available on my phone (via Kindle app and Overdrive) means I can read anything I want at a moment’s notice. No more flipping through last May’s issue of Working Woman in the waiting room! No, let’s see how big a bite I can take out of Martin Chuzzlewit…just open the complete works of Dickens!

Yet I still like holding a physical book, and my recent indisposition reminded me how much I miss a good, long stretch of pure reading time. It’s my fault, of course. Almost always my first choice in the evening is something on the flat screen.

But do I really need an hour of what used to be called “news” but is now little more than an oral version of Friday Night SmackDown? How much of must is really there in “must-see TV” (not much!). How many hours of my life are unredeemed by tuning into the latest “can’t miss” series which, once I’ve taken in an episode or two, I wish I’d actually missed?

Okay, there’s football three or four nights a week, but that’s what the DVR and pause button are for (I can skip time outs, commercials, and halftimes—with apologies to Phil, Curt, Michael, Terry, Howie, Coach, Boomer, Jimmy, Tony, Spanky, Fozzie, Gonzo and whoever else expands time with erudite comments like, “The defense really needs to step up.”)

So, dear friends, why don’t I just get into the habit of reading a book after dinner?

If it was good enough for Cary Grant, it should be good enough for me!

When was the last time you curled up with a good (physical) book for at least an hour? How have your reading habits changed over the last couple of decades? Do you have a favorite “curl-up-with” book?

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BTW, if your preferred method of curling up these days is audio, and you’re a writer, you might be interested to know that I have another of my writing books available through Audible. Narrated, natch, by me. The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings.

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60 thoughts on “On Curling Up With a Good Book

  1. It irritates me very much that I don’t have as much time to read (in any format) as I used to. Definitely one of the biggest downers of adulting, as opposed to childhood where I got to spend hours and hours reading.

    Due to aging eyeballs, I read a higher percentage of books on Kindle, where I can adjust the font. However, with the type of books I like to write, relevant books for research were generally published in the pre-ebook days so I do a lot of physical book reading too. In fact I am spending this weekend trying to accomplish the impossible–a way to create more bookshelf space in a 1 bedroom apartment. Since time is at a premium, I want my books out in a logical order so I can get at them easily with a minimum of time. Hard to do when some are in boxes and others are jammed together on shelves. ARGH!

    I never read in bed, both because I fall asleep rapidly (thankfully!) and because I find it uncomfortable holding up a book that way.

    Ebook or physical, there’s still nothing like curling up with a good book and immersing yourself in it for long periods of time. That doesn’t happen much any more but it’s awesome when it does.

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    • I hear you about bookshelf space, BK. It seems like every time I try to get rid of some books around here (e.g., donations, library, etc.) I find there is still no room for all the books stacked in various closets or boxes. How can that be? Some perverse law of alternate universe physics I suspect.

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    • I am allergic to aging paper, dust, and the various scents that paperbacks collect so, ten years ago, I did a massive cull of all my books. It was easier than I imagined it would be because I gave them to good homes. The library got most of them for their library fundraiser sales. After a hurricane wiped out a small town’s library in my state, many of those books I couldn’t give away before went to my library’s drive to refill that library. I figured those poor folks who had lost everything needed those reads more than my bookshelves did. The books that remain went into a barrister bookcase (a bookcase that has glass doors) on the other side of the house from my bedroom.

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  2. I and my other half have drifted into reading in the evenings, instead of watching TV. It’s actually become our default evening activity.

    Part of the problem is there is just so much really good television to watch these days, that it’s overwhelming. TOO much choice. There’s also way too many books, but choosing a book is a personal thing, while choosing which TV series to watch is a decision by committee.

    Reading has become once more the escape it used to be.

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    • I and my other half have drifted into reading in the evenings, instead of watching TV. It’s actually become our default evening activity.

      So the legends are true! It can be done! I’m encouraged.

      Thanks, Tracy.

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  3. Given recent research on the varying impact of different kinds of light (including TV and monitor screens) on sleep cycle, it might behoove us to read physical books in the evening. But perhaps not in bed, per some other advice.

    Since I opt for OTA TV (over-the-air), I have less football luring me during week-nights than does JSB. On the other hand, by the end of my day of professional screen-squinting and paper-based reading, my antique eyes are often not up to reading at night. I may have to be more systematic about finding my real books on the large-print shelf.

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    • Good reminder about the light, Eric. I wear yellow-tinted reading glasses at the computer, switch on the blue-light filter on my phone if I’m going to be reading on it for any length of time, and if I’m watching something on TV later in the evening, I’ll actually put on yellow-tint sunglasses. That makes watching something in technicolor a bit dicey. I mean, I don’t believe Munchkin Land was ever meant to exist under the cloudy smog of the Oz sulfur works. Then again, if the wicked witch is behind things….

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  4. I’m still mostly an “in bed” reader, although I do take breaks reading in my comfy office chair. Usually, that ends up being a nap, too. For me, format doesn’t matter, although my insomnia 2 AM reading is on an e-reader so I don’t o turn on a light.
    Since the Hubster retired, he’s taken up a lot more reading at all times of day, both print and digital.
    Our TV time is almost exclusively recorded, so our nightly ‘hour’ is usually 42 minutes. We generally stop watching football games at half time.

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  5. I feel a need–a need to read every day. A chapter or two while I wait for the coffeepot to quit sputtering. A couple more while eating a late lunch. Then after the late evening news and weather report, I push my bedtime into the early morning hours, reading until my eyes won’t stay open any longer.

    Studies about sleeping well convinced me that reading is bed isn’t a good idea. Besides, by the time I finally put my book down and retire for the night, sleep is the only option.

    I’m a fast reader, so I go through several books a week.

    My preference is physical books, mainly paperbacks or mass market editions because they’re easier to hold. But when I don’t have anything on my TBR shelves, I reach for my Kindle and read on.

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    • Suzanne, you’ve thrown me for a loop. I’ve never heard of reading in bed being bad for you. Indeed, isn’t it supposed to relieve stress and help you fall asleep? The latter is certainly the case for me!

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      • Right now, I’m reading “When Crickets Cry” by Charles Martin. I don’t know about reading in bed being bad for sleep, but his prose just makes me want to read forever. I have a hard time putting it down. But when I do finally drift off, it’s with his melodic phrases sifting my thoughts and soothing my soul.

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      • Yes, reading relieves stress. But there are health experts who say the bedroom should only be used for sleeping and intimate relations (how’s that for PG?). That way when you’re in the bedroom, your subconscious tells you that you’re supposed to be sleeping. It’s believed by some that if you take work to bed with you, or even a good book, that you don’t sleep as well because you’re aware of those distractions in your space. They also suggest that if you can’t sleep, you get out of bed and go into another room if you decide to read or watch TV. That way that bedroom-sleep brain connection remains intact.

        For me, it’s more that I can never find a comfortable position for reading in bed. But I do get in more than my share of tiny naps while reading in my recliner. Sigh.

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  6. JSB-
    As an emergency doc for decades I heard all manner of description of the miseries that plague us. Your “There was a junkyard tire fire in my stomach. My head felt like a mastiff’s chew toy.” is brilliant (and sympathy groan provoking). Glad you have recovered!
    I read virtually every night. Oftentimes at the expense of adequate sleep but when I have a good book in hand the trade-off is worth it.
    I also hope that regular exposure to great writing will improve my work.

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    • Your last line is a good reminder, Tom. We don’t have to read just as a reader at night. We could read things that help us improve our style, or imagination. Re-reading passages you admire, for instance.

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  7. I, too, use a Kindle almost exclusively because of my failing eyesight.

    Ah, for the days when I could disappear into my basement bedroom under the parents, brothers and sisters, and the chihuahua (Pepe) with a good book. I spent many weekends lost under the house while real life exploded over my head. Hours and hours with Agatha Christie, Nancy Drew, and various other authors whose names I can’t remember.

    Today? I read the Killzone every morning. It seems to suck the creative juices into my fingertips and out to the keys. Between part-time work, part-time volunteering, reading craft/how-to-write books, my own WIPs, grandkids, husband, and German Shepherd (now there’s a high-maintenance canine for you!), my reading-for-pleasure time is relegated to just before sleep every night, about a chapter or two, and Sunday afternoons. I like Sundays best. I don’t usually fall asleep because the German Shepherd often lays on the other half of my recliner loveseat in my office, and she’s a noisy sleeper.

    But, paper books will live on. I’m convinced there will be shelves upon shelves of them in heaven, new eyes to read them with, and all of eternity to spend doing it. Heck, there might even be new stories to write. Now there’s something to look forward to!

    Thanks, JSB, for another nostalgic walk into the past. 🙂

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  8. I could never read in bed. Like you, I drift off after a few pages. In January 2018 I started a routine of stopping work at 4 p.m. to read a while before dinner, and I found it so relaxing and peaceful. I looked forward to that time every day. That routine lasted for about 15 months when the offer to write true crime destroyed my reading time (not that I’m complaining). I have to read so much nonfiction for research that making time for thrillers slid into second place. And I miss sinking into a good novel! I really need to find a way to fit it into my schedule… just not on football nights. 😉 We record every game on the DVR to skip commercials and halftime, too. Actually, I think your team’s playing my team today. Should be a great game.

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  9. A decade or so ago I splurged on a real-leather chair from a Dania store near Portland. Took it with me on the move back to California. Perfect fit, my reading place, good for morning meditation. Also a perfect sleeping chair, dang it.

    The other thing is, I live in an active senior community where I’m library custodian for 800 paperbacks and 300 hardbacks. This is for only 238 homes!. In my six years here I’ve watched the cull point drift forward from publication date 2000 to 2005 and soon to be 2010. With so many choices I have curl-up reading aplenty. A lot of active retirees prefer analog reading, as one might expect. Sometimes we get a garage dump of grocery sacks. Our culls go to the public library over the hill from here.

    A few weeks back, having read so many JSB posts about the good old crime writers of yesteryear, I went and bought a bunch of early Robert B. Parker from Thriftbooks. Chewed through eight of them in as many nights. Doggone, the guy was good! Just forgot where I was, how long I’d been an immovable object in that Dania chair. I leave the TV to my wife, except for NFL nights–I’m also a DVR ad skipper. The writing takes up most of my day, so I save a couple of evening hours for a Cary Grant type of settling in. It’s good for the constitution.

    I’ll have more to say about it…as soon as I wake up.

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    • Thanks, Dan, for the reminder that a good chair is a must…but maybe not TOO comfy? In the movie, Grant sits in a straight-back chair. Perhaps there’s something to that.

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    • Speaking of culling, you reminded me that I need to put a note on my calendar to follow up in February next year. My state’s historical society had a book sale from culling their stacks last year and I hit the motherlode. It was so exciting I still jump up and down thinking about my haul. 😎

      Signed,
      Hopeless History Nerd

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    • My favorite place to read is the beach.

      Alas, we now live inland. My second favorite place is the hammock in our back yard but since the tree that blocked the view from the street came down in the last hurricane, I’m self-conscious about the neighbors seeing me. I keep rolling it to different places but I’m not invisible yet.

      People give me books. Lots of books. Good books. Expensive books. I was trying to convince myself to pass them on to a Veteran’s charity since I rarely have time to read regular books (I burn through a lot of audiobooks during commute time in the car) but I wanted to read them first. So that’s my new thing.

      My Wall Street Journal subscription gives me a free ebook a month. I’m not reading those either, though it sure is fun picking them out. They are there if I ever have a minute.

      I’m working on that, too.

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  10. Interesting you should post this today. Last night I finished Try Fear. I read it in 2 days! I typically have 4 tv shows I watch each week. The rest of my evening are spent reading and writing. thanks for continuing to write great books!

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  11. The only true excuse a working writer has for not reading books is writing books. Since I’m all but retired in fiction and teaching, I read close to 200 books a year. This year will be much less because I keep getting reader fatigue. I read across multiple genres and age levels as well as nontraditional mixed genre from self-pub authors, but I still manage to get bored. So many authors, so much sameness. Fortunately, a favorite author will have a new book out and that will get me excited again, but that fades away. A sad state of affairs for someone who loves books.

    One of my favorite reader/media sites is Tor.com. Last week, one of the blog articles was about reader’s block which is becoming a very real thing for bookaholics. I am not alone in this. I’ve link below if anyone wants to read the discussion.

    https://www.tor.com/2019/12/03/how-to-recover-from-readers-block/

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    • Sheesh, I thought I was doing good when I got to 100 books a year. But that was about 25 years ago. I stopped keeping track. If I count fragments I’m probably way over that. Finishing is the challenge!

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  12. Entertainment is now considered a passive activity. We need to re-learn how to entertain ourselves. Andrew Nelson Lytle said it many years ago: “Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall.”

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  13. We have this wonderful, comfy recliner in the guest room, aka my office, which serves as both a reading and writing chair. At the end of the day when my brain rebuffs my appeal to produce a creative thought and I can’t feign interest in the TV news anymore, I sit and read for an hour or so. I love the feel of paper, but appreciate my command over the font size on digital, so either format is good for me.

    Forgive me for going off on a tangent, but I have to put in a good word for my chair. Although I sit at my desk when reading email, responding to blogs, or checking my sales rank on Amazon 😊, I use my lovely recliner when I’m working on my novels. I find comfort enhances creativity. (And prevents hunched shoulders!) Does anybody else have unorthodox writing furniture?

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    • I think I hunch worse in my recliner, and my neck kills me by the end of the day. I love writing by the fire, but if I’m not at my desk I pay for it later. Love reading in the recliner, though!

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      • I think the reason it works for me is that I have an adjustable laptop stand that fits into the chair so my laptop doesn’t rest on my legs. It’s positioned so my arms and back are aligned well and I don’t hunch over. I used to get sore in my shoulders when I worked at my desk for long periods, but I don’t have that anymore.

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  14. When we refurbished our basement a couple of years ago, we put in a movie room. A theater, really, complete with an HD projector and screen. With all the high-quality television out there these days (very little of it on the Alphabets), that room has largely taken the place of the library (dedicated reading room, really) as the place where I spend my time in the evenings.

    A few nights ago, the projector bulb burned out, and as I wait for the replacement, I’ve spent the past couple of evenings back in the comfy leather chair in the library. I wonder if this is fate’s way of reminding me of how much I was missing.

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  15. Great post JSB.

    My wife and I purchased a Queen Anne chair this summer, complete with ottoman, for our bedroom. I LOVE to read in this chair and have re-discovered the notion that pre-bedtime reading can last longer than the 2 minutes it takes for the Kindle to hit the floor the first time (how my Kindle has lasted 5 years is beyond me given how many times it has smacked the floor). I confess that 2 weeks ago, on a work night (during the late fall us tax guys don’t have to work every day!), I stayed up until 2AM to finish JC Pollock’s “Mission MIA”, which I have probably read 20 times (though not at all in the last dozen years). I haven’t stayed up late like that in a long time, but it was soooo worth it. Right now I’m working my way through Hemingway’s “In Our Time.”

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    • Very cool, Douglas. And you remind me that short stories often make for good evening reading. You can knock one off and then go to bed. With Hemingway, maybe two or three!

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  16. Hi James. I always love your posts. I try to read for half hour or so before I write/revise. Taking in gasp-worthy writing switches my brain to a different gear, maybe switches it off. Whatever, multitasker me gets kicked out of the room, and I can truly breathe. The fruit shows on the page. Every time.

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    • That’s a great idea, Jay, so long as one is intentional about the material one reads. A friend of mine, a published novelist, once read several Elmore Leonard books in a row. He told me it almost ruined him. That’s because he’s not that kind of writer! He has his own unique voice. Reading other styles can stretch you, but on occasion might trip you up. It’s all very mysterious, isn’t it?

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      • Gasp-worthy writing – tough criteria for pre-writing inspiration, but worth finding. I don’t bother with much less any time tbh. 😉

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  17. I don’t watch TV as there’s not much on, though it’s easy to get lost in a movie (or three, like I did this past weekend). Probably the only time I put the TV on nowadays is to watch the All Blacks.

    Alas, I don’t read as often as I used to; being an adult certainly gets in the way! However, for the last few weeks, I’ve been retiring to the bedroom for half-an-hour of uninterrupted reading time before bed. I’ve read a couple of books, and a few NZ Home and Garden magazines (my guilty pleasure). I forgot how great it was to be able to sprawl out over my bed, turn off the screen, and absorb someone else’s work.

    I’m sleeping better as well, now that I don’t have that blue-glare from the computer screen.

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      • As with all home and garden magazines, I’m pretty sure the owners don’t live there full-time. They look more like museums and less like homes.

        I’d be lying if I said I read it for the articles. 🙂

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  18. “These days I have to snatch time to read a book. Too many other things demand our attention. Speed and the false god Multitask have killed contemplation. We have sacrificed the aesthetic on the altar of the frenetic.”

    How well this observation describes my life. It’s maddening. I work, on average, ten hours every weekday. I get home, there’s dinner, which I help arrange (my wife works as hard as I do). My youngest has homework to be checked. My eldest needs a ride home from practice. Add in things like cleaning up after dinner, walking my two massive dogs, paying whatever bills need paid, and sitting with my wife for about an hour in front of the TV (while we both look at our phones), and there’s just not enough time to do much.

    My daily writing goal is 1,100 words every day (with a day off). So I can do that, or I can read a book. I cannot realistically do both without paying for it hard the next day. So, I write. Then, I sleep.

    I’m about fifteen years away from retirement (unless I hit the publishing lottery first). I’m hoping things will slow down then. I have well over a hundred books I’ve been meaning to read… for years. I don’t even need a comfy chair.

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      • That was maybe the best advice you’ve given me. No, not “maybe”. It certainly was. And I thank you for it.

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        • And here’s my two cents worth on retirement and slowing down: it’s a myth! I never needed a calendar or day planner when I worked full-time. I always knew where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing when I worked 9-5.

          Now, sometimes I don’t know …where I’m supposed to be …or even where the heck I am! 🙂

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  19. I read mainly on vacations, eating up books like a starving dog. It works even better if you’re vacationing in a foreign country and can’t understand the TV. (Although two years ago in Orleans I ran out of books and watched Tin Star, with Tony Perkins and Henry Fonda speaking French. It was great. I think.)

    I always stuff two paperbacks in my luggage and lately the Kindle for backup. Unless I’m going to Paris, in which case I take only one paperback and then make the pilgrimage to Shakespeare & Co. It was in Shakespeare’s that I found Ben Winter’s The Last Policeman and a dusty copy of Peter Lefcourt’s The Dreyfus Affair. Two great discoveries…par bon chance.

    Hope you’re feeling better and that the head is now a mere chihuahua with a Dingo Chew.

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  20. I read for a couple of hours every evening. My husband and I dropped TV years ago, only watching a movie of our choice when the mood strikes. That leaves me plenty of time for several hours of reading every night. I devour a book about every two or three days.

    I don’t read print books. My two previous careers destroyed the cartilage in both thumbs and holding a book is agony. Before the e-reader, I laid the book in my lap. It was a struggle with the smaller paper backs. My e-reader changed my life.

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