July 27, 2018

Study, with a chance of meatballs: Ikea is opening an in-store reading room in a London store



Meatballs: take the flag out before tucking in. Via WikiMedia Commons.

Ah, Ikea. Scandinavian, pleasant, clean, cheap, funky, extremely-murky-past-having Ikea. Say what you like about the place, I can’t think of many other stores I’d go if I wanted to, say, purchase a stuffed shark, pocket some very small (but, crucially, free) pencils, and experience lingonberry jam as a condiment option. You just cannot get that kind of experience anywhere else, folks. Ikea seems to be the place where just about everybody gets their bookshelves now (the Billy bookcase, right? Don’t pretend like you don’t know, I see you there, jotting down his dimensions with your little paper measuring tape) — but never could you read a book there. Until Now.

This week the Sweden-based furniture giant announced that, in conjunction with the Man Booker Prize (the longlist for which was also announced this week), they will open reading rooms in their store in Wembley, North-West London, as Faima Bakar reports in the Metro. Customers will be able to read books from the longlist in specially decorated rooms, in hour-long slots. Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, explains the choice:

“…reading fiction can be, at its best, a form of escapism. But that doesn’t make it a guilty pleasure; it’s more like a fast route to better health. Our homes are filled with devices that allow the digital world to encroach on our private lives.”

While it’s heartening to see companies acknowledge the need for a work/life balance, this initiative is also unfortunately indicative of a more widespread problem: the erasure of both personal time and public space, in which to actually sit down and read. But is the solution booking yourself into in a room, for an hour, until you’re chucked out again? That doesn’t sound especially pleasurable. It sounds like a race against time.

There’s also an unnerving emphasis on the supposed health benefits of reading here. Both the Metro article and the Ikea website quote a study by the University of Sussex, initially reported by the Telegraph back in 2009, stating that just six minutes of reading per day can help to reduce stress by up to two-thirds. Is this really the reason we read, though? Should it be? We don’t ride bikes just for the health benefits; we ride them to go places. We don’t eat just vegetables because they’re good for us; we eat them because they’re tasty (well, celery isn’t, it is the food of the literal devil, but that’s another blog for another time).

It means that reading is in danger of joining the conversation around leisure activities that goes: we can’t do something just because it’s pleasurable, we have to have to do it because it’s healthy. In an economy weighed down by austerity, we have to justify our choices to stop them being seen as (the horror, the horror) indulgences. And that’s a dangerous path to go down.

Anyway if you want to read somthing off the Booker Prize longlist while surrounded by tasteful furniture and cinnamon-flavoured pastries, customers can book slots online ahead of their visit to the Ikea, where presumably they’ll also buy a lamp shaped like an ornate crocodile or something. Could you pick me up some meatballs while you’re over there, actually? I’ll pay you back. And a Billy bookcase or two, just to be on the safe side.



Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.