Al fresco reading: is it really worth the sunburn?

By and Rosie Nicholls

With sunny skies, warm weather and long days, reading outside seems like the perfect pastime. But is it so? Is reading outdoors really all that enjoyable? Or is it just an excuse to take pictures and pretend like you’re in a coming-of-age movie? Books contributors give their take on al fresco reading. 

I am a fair-weather reader. Though my Billy B study sessions are accompanied by fireside soundtracks of warm libraries and bustling cafés, my reading is confined to the outdoors. For perhaps the entirety of lockdown in 2020, I lay, sprawled on the grass, moving approximately a metre over the course of each day. In my hand? Whatever book I’d picked up. Come Autumn and Winter 2020, when lying outside becomes a little odd rather than a method of relaxation, my Goodreads reading challenge suffered. Gone were the days of al fresco reading. 

Coming to Durham, I’m still an advocate for outdoor reading. Between cold and rainy January to April this year, I think I read a grand total of one book. When May’s sunny days rolled around, however, I wanted nothing more than to finally crack open a new read. But, with this love of al fresco reading, comes a whole host of challenges.

Take, for example, the important decision of choosing a location for your outdoor reading. My college’s lawn is a perfect example of the dilemma this issue poses — if I go outside and it’s too quiet, do I look odd? If it’s too busy, am I antisocial? If I venture further afield will I, god forbid, run into someone I know (as these things always seem to be in Durham). And what do you wear on such an occasion? You want to perfect the attitude of a ‘mysterious person who reads outside’ without looking too pretentious. I want people to guess what I’m reading, without realising I’m just struggling through Sally Rooney for the third time. Do you go with friends? With food? With headphones?

I’ll confess I haven’t perfected outdoor reading yet. But I think Durham offers some of the most beautiful reading spots if you venture further afield. One of my personal favourites I stumbled upon near the Botanical Gardens. Despite the struggles of being a voracious fair-weather reader, nothing really beats sitting in the grass with a book and the sun. 

I will always choose to read outside whenever I can

 

For many, June marks the lauded end to a stressful exam period. A lazy, rambling month, punctuated with afternoons on the racecourse and gloriously last-minute plans. For many, too, it is a chance to comb through our bookshelves and work our way through the list of ‘Oh, I’ll read that after exams’ novels.  

I will forever be a firm fan of al fresco reading because I associate it so closely with being able to relax and sink properly into a good story, unencumbered by exams. Time seems to slow on those languorous afternoons in the garden, by the cathedral, or on the racecourse, where all you have to worry about is whether you have left your bookmark at home and what to read next.  

Despite the sunshine being pretty scarce at the moment, I am seizing every opportunity to read al fresco. When the sun does make a much-anticipated appearance, I’m off, bag crammed with three or more books, to find a secluded spot to read — I am, admittedly, a fickle being and like to have multiple novels on the go, lest my mood change.  

I can almost feel it now — warm sun on my skin, my back resting against a slightly gnarled tree trunk in Old Durham Gardens. Of course, al fresco reading is never as glamorous as the Instagram stories make it appear. The camera never captures the crawling bugs that I am notoriously scared of or the stickiness of my fingers from slathering on sun cream (I testify that the Durham sun does indeed burn). But despite these less tranquil moments, I will always choose to read outside whenever I can. It is a chunk of time you can truly take for yourself, to soak up some well-deserved Vitamin D and lose yourself in a new, or comfortably familiar, read.  

Image: Palosirkka via Wikimedia Commons

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