On Reading: Shoes On or Shoes Off?

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It’s not one of those things that will shape the future of reading, the next best seller, or decide the question of e-books versus paper books (a silly argument, I think). But I discovered recently that most people have a decided preference for whether they read with their shoes on or off. And for the vast majority, if the readers at the Bob on Books Facebook page are any indicator, we like to read with our shoes off, if at all possible (and some of us would live that way if we could!).

I suppose that it just makes sense. We all came without shoes in the beginning. Remember one of the favorite game of little ones? Taking off shoes. I never knew a little one whose favorite game was putting on shoes. As long as it is comfortable, we like the feeling of our feet being free! Shoes basically came into existence for protection, from both sharp objects and the cold, and in battle, enemy weaponry. Leather shoes have been found dating back to 3500 BC–most moccasin-like affairs. Then someone got the sense of shoes as not merely functional but decorative, and likely less comfortable. We wanted to get those things off as soon as we could.

So what does all this have to do with shoes and reading? And why are we even talking about it. It all came of seeing an art image of a young woman reading on a veranda, barefoot. It looked so comfortable, particularly coming, as I do, from “shoes on” people. So I asked about it, and found that I’m in the minority. For some, it is just part of a household, “shoes off” etiquette. Most of my reading friends, unless they are in a public indoor place where footwear is required, prefer reading barefoot (and I suspect even in some places, like coffee shops, they surreptitiously slip those shoes off under the table.

I suspect that this connects to the fact that reading, even for understanding, is most often a leisure activity. We try to find a comfortable chair, or even a soft patch of ground under a tree on a summer day, with a drink nearby, and perhaps a beloved pet. Many of us like to put our feet up, on a hassock or footrest, or even stretched out on a sofa. Somehow, when our feet can breathe, the rest of us follows.

The ultimate, though, is reading in bed, a favorite reading spot for many readers. One doesn’t even think of wearing shoes there. And perhaps that logic works backward to other reading locations.

Some are hybrid readers when it come to the shoes on/shoes off choice. I’m like that. Early in the morning and after the day’s work is done, I’m shoes off. At other times, I’m usually reading with shoes on. For some, it is seasonal–summer is shoes off, cooler weather is socks, and maybe lined slippers in the winter. Some people just have cold feet, usually someone to whom you are married, and they usually don socks or slippers.

What this all reminds me of is that reading is an immersive embodied experience. It isn’t simply eyes reading words off a page and trying to make sense of them in our brains. It is lighting, and comfortable seating, perhaps a chair side table for beverages, reading glasses, and maybe a dictionary or commonplace book. It has to do with the comforts of body which often convey ease to the soul as we become absorbed in a good story. It stands to reason that these comforts extend to our clothes and even the shedding of shoes. And that’s OK–take off your shoes and set a spell,” as they say.