In the mornings they set out paper bowls of cantaloupe at RT’s Flag Bar in Baltimore, which is an upgrade over the stale peanuts you’ll find elsewhere. Then again, there’s a handwritten sign above the register that says, “Remember BENGHAZI” so it’s not all pleasant. I know because this year I read a lot in bars, and RT’s is where I really began.
When you bring a book to a bar, you get entertainment and a shield. Healthier than a phone, reading a book dissuades would-be chatterboxes more effectively than pretending to check your email. Some will persist, and we usually wish they wouldn’t, but there’s no such thing as an impenetrable defense. RT’s was a refuge from the heat, so I locked my bike and read Heather Christle’s poems. I was so entranced I forgot about the cantaloupe. In the summer I felt snowed in.
At Lee’s Liquor Lounge in Minneapolis, the bartender told a patron that she wouldn’t have worn her overalls if she’d known she’d be working that day. That’s another thing about reading in bars: you can eavesdrop. At the Moose on Monroe, some dude named Frisco tried to tell me all about “boilermaking” while I read Sam Pink’s The Garbage Times / White Ibis. Minnesotans will talk even when you are aggressively uninterested in what they’re saying, sometimes to no one but themselves, but it’s easy enough to grunt or autopilot your way through a few “no kiddings” until they move on. Bars there hold weekly meat raffles. One of the novellas in Pink’s book takes place inside a frigid, dank dive. I thought about that when I noticed someone had written “DO NOT TOUCH ALL WINTER” above the Knight Cap’s thermostat.
Reading Harry Crews practically apparates whiskey into your hand no matter where you are, so it was ticklish to learn Joe Lon, his protagonist in Feast of Snakes, owned a package store full of brown liquor. In the back, a lady named Hard Candy placed bets on how quickly a snake could eat a rat, and while I read that scene I put my feet up on the rail at Butts & Betty’s in case something slithered by. One of the bartenders is a notary public, and she pours Beam like she’s giving it away.
At St. Roch Tavern north of Marigny, I took a break from reading Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love because he described being “drunk as a boiled owl,” and I needed a minute to process that visual. Moments later, bingo night started. While not as insufferable as karaoke, bingo makes considerable commotion so I moved across town to Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge. I read the rest of the book under the red glow of ten thousand string lights. Snake’s has changed in recent years, and it felt sanitized compared to how I remembered it. Fittingly, the last story in Brown’s collection might be the worst piece I’ve read since undergrad, and I slogged through it next to two loud Tulane students before I left.
Your second bourbon’s treachery is how it tells you you’re good for four, but in the Fairmont Dallas lobby bar, that’s manageable because the pours are piddly. Before checking into my room, I polished off Christina Thompson’s New Zealand memoir, which I enjoyed well enough however I wish it lived up to its title, even though nothing ever could: Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.
Bars conducive to reading need good light. You want lantern vibes. A gentle din is better than music but, paradoxically, both are preferable to silence. The downside of a totally quiet bar is that when someone inevitably opens their mouth, or the phone rings, the noise is too crisp to ignore.
I like reading at Standings in the East Village because I lack the constitution to pay attention to baseball statistics and Vegas odds, and those two subjects dominate conversations in the place. Not long ago I finished The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake in the corner, and drew three circles around this line: “Insecurity crawfished through his blood, leaving him powerless again.”
The other night at ChurchKey, which was far too dark, I read Patricia Lockwood’s essay on Lucia Berlin, which was incandescently bright. Lockwood nailed the aspects of Berlin I love most. A Manual for Cleaning Women showed me how vividly someone can convey the careworn sense of a place, and while Evening in Paradise is less polished and consistent, its descriptions of places and sounds are no less wonderful. Few writers have had better ears for dialogue and acoustic details than Berlin, which is why I gasped when Lockwood wrote, “The problem is that if you’re a person who loves perfect sounds, bars are always full of them.” In one of her stories, Berlin’s protagonist asks what the difference is between a connoisseur and a wino. “The connoisseur takes it out of the paper bag.”
Dive bars are timeless. You cannot imagine them opening; they’ve just existed. Newer bars are usually harder, louder, less respectful to readers. You need to pick particular books depending on your venue. No one should read the canon at the Budweiser Brew House in the St. Louis airport. However it was a serviceable setting when I needed to finish The Strange Bird, and nothing could’ve broken my concentration. Boisterous beach bars can be navigated. I wouldn’t try to read Moby-Dick there, but Monty’s in Coconut Grove is the perfect setting for American Desperado, Jon Roberts’s mesmerizing memoir about his time as a narco kingpin. While sipping a Pain Killer, I learned the best way to kneecap someone. Under the wicker fans, I looked across Biscayne Bay and imagined picking up a loaf of bread in Bimini. I don’t think anyone’s ever read anything at Sweet’s Lounge on the Gulf coast of Mississippi, but you could play “chicken shit bingo” there for a couple bucks and write a story about it afterwards. I’d read that.
Walking home from Frazier’s, I peeked in row house windows and imagined myself hanging out with Willie and Liberty from Breaking & Entering. When Joy Williams wrote her guide to The Florida Keys, was she just casing joints like they did? Has anyone ever nailed Florida’s dreadful sublimity better than Williams? I think not. She began a chapter with the phrase, “the summer that someone was mutilating the pelicans,” and I’m still reeling.
Carol at BAR used to give a key to her regulars so they could let themselves in, but “nowadays you can’t even leave a cooler around some people.” This notion was enough to make me put down Lindsay Hunter’s Eat Only When You’re Hungry, the most perfect book I read all year. Imagine the trust in that bygone era. Meet oblivion like Greg.
They sold Tums and Rolaids for $1.50 at Dimitri’s before it closed and turned into a taco joint. It’s hard to explain but the vibe at the time was just right for Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book, which was profoundly sad and beautiful. Joyce, the bartender who makes great pit beef, had a preternatural gift for anticipating when her patrons needed another round. Broken Arrow played on the TV while one guy discussed a 4-month program training HVAC technicians, and how the irony of working on air conditioners is that you never get to feel them yourself. His companion with a cane was talking about moving to Colorado to escape the heat. It reminded me of the line in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son: “what I wouldn’t give to have us sitting in a bar again at 9:00 a.m. telling lies to one another, far from God.”
Drinking while reading lubricates the mind, makes it more amenable to certain ideas. Thoughts become cloudy, not just in terms of ephemerality but also in how gracefully they brush into one another. There’s a thrum in the cerebellum when thoughts gather momentum, when the clouds pick up wind. Another benefit of reading in the bar is that by committing to the book in a public space, you become motivated to see it through. Even though nobody cares, you feel like the people around you want you to finish the book. You push forward in a way that you probably wouldn’t alone at home, surrounded by comfortable distractions. I find this useful when I want to finish a book just to finish it, after I’ve ceased enjoying the experience. Recently I pretended a couple on a Tinder date a few seats over was invested in whether or not I could get to the end of Andrey Platonov’s Happy Moscow. It turned out they were as disinterested in one another as I was in the book, but that’s one last thing about reading in bars: when you’re done, you can get the hell out of there.
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5 Year Diary
Her Body and Other Parties
Little Fires Everywhere
Sing, Unburied, Sing
This month brought nothing new to our list and the top half remains unchanged. The first six titles from February are also the first six titles for March. Mercifully, titles seven, eight, nine, and ten switched places, which gives me enough material to write at least this single sentence.
Most of this month’s near misses carried over from February as well. The lone newcomer is Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage. In our Great 2018 Book Preview, our own Nick Ripatrazone observed that, “In our greatest tragedies, there is the feeling of no escape—and when the storytelling is just right, we feel consumed by the heartbreak.” He highlighted Jones’s “powerful new novel” as an example of this feat, stating that despite the book’s tragic turns of plot, its author “makes sure … we can’t look away.”
Next month at least two spots will open up after Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere and Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach graduate to our Hall of Fame. Which books will take their places? Will they be new releases or some of the near misses from our previous lists? There’s only one way to find out.
In the meantime, those looking for recommendations on what to read should consider subscribing to our monthly “What We’re Reading” round-up, which is sent to Millions supporters. You can learn more about the (extremely affordable!) program over here. In recent months, these round-up emails have featured Hannah Gersen on Future Sex, Iľja Rákoš on Penguin Lost, and yours truly on The Trees The Trees, Shelter, and It to name just a few. The round-ups provide quick, snapshot book recommendations from Millions staffers and special guests which serve as digital recreations of the staff picks shelf stickers at your favorite bookstore. In the past four months, I’ve added at least a dozen books to my “to read” pile thanks to them.